Four Steps to Rust-Free Tools

Ever since the dawn of the Iron Age (whenever that was), rust has been the enemy of the woodworker. I live in the wettest region of the continental USA, so rust is ever present to me. Even though I store and use my hand tools indoors, there are still big fluctuations in humidity from season to season, so I have had to give a lot of thought to rust-prevention.

Like everything else in the shop, the key to success is establishing good habits and routines. Here are four practices that I have found helpful in keeping my hand tools rust-free:

1. Wipe them off. Our shops are dusty places. But dust particles that settle on your tools give moisture in the air a convenient place to condense, which leads to rust. So the less dust you have on your tools, the less rust-prone they will be. You can use a clean cloth or even a handheld vacuum to dust off your tools at the end of the day. For hand tools with a lot of nooks and crannies (like hand planes), I use a small paintbrush I got at a hardware store. Also be sure to wipe down metal surfaces that you have handled with your bare hands. The natural chemicals that our skin produces can quickly corrode iron and steel.

2. Apply a lubricant.  There are many good oils and waxes that, when applied in a thin layer, form a very good barrier between atmospheric moisture and your tools. I’ve used a lot of different lubes over the years, including jojoba oil, paste wax, and synthetic motor oil. I’ve heard of good results from natural products like camellia oil and mutton tallow, as well as products in a spray can like Topcote, Boeshield T-9, and WD-40. They all work. Pick one and try it out. (Just don’t use a drying oil like linseed oil–that goes on wood, not on metal.) Apply only thin a coat, and wipe off any excess. Waxes and some oils can get gummy when applied too thickly.

A trick I learned from Paul Sellers: to make a simple oil applicator, roll up a cotton rag and stuff it into a small, clean can. Soak it with your choice of oil. Use it to apply the oil to your tools before putting them away.

3. Store them in a wooden box. I learned this one by experience. When I first started working wood, I kept my hand tools in a metal tool box, and I would occasionally find rust spots on them. But since I built my wooden tool chest, I’ve had far fewer rust problems. I think the wood acts as a moisture regulator, absorbing excess moisture in the air inside the chest before the moisture can condense on the tools. It might not be a practical solution for large power tools, but for everything else, I highly recommend a wooden tool chest or wall cabinet. If you do need to keep your hand tools in a metal chest or cabinet, consider using a small rod heater (like a Golden Rod heater) to prevent condensation. These devices are inexpensive, plug into a regular outlet, and are designed to regulate temperature and humidity in everything from pianos to gun safes. They work for tools, too.

4. Use them frequently. One of the greatest causes of corrosion is neglect. (And that applies to a lot more than just woodworking!) Regardless of how carefully you store your tools, they will tend to corrode if left to themselves. But if you use your tools often, you will notice the small rust spots before they become big rust spots. And if you are in the habit of cleaning your tools before putting them away, you will be cleaning them frequently. But if you never use them, you probably won’t think to dust them off and oil them, either. I’ve seen a lot of pictures of shops full of duplicate hand tools just sitting around on shelves, unused. That invites rust, unless the tools are regularly maintained. There’s nothing wrong with collecting tools, and if you do, then naturally you’ll want to curate your collection in more ways than are detailed in this blog post. But if you’re not a dedicated collector, and some of your tools are deteriorating from lack of use, consider passing them on to somebody who will actually use them.

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Planing Stop

To plane down a piece of wood by hand, you have to immobilize the wood. If the workpiece is small enough, it can be held in a bench vise. But if the workpiece is too wide or too long, it won’t fit in the vise. What do you do then?

There are a lot of gadgets and gizmos that will hold a big piece of wood steady while you plane it down, but the simplest is the planing stop. Because as it turns out, when you run a hand plane over a piece of wood, it really needs to be immobilized only in one direction–the direction you are planing the wood.

Some time after I built my workbench, I installed a very simple planing stop that has worked fairly well for years. The design is not mine–I modeled it on something I saw on the internet years ago. The original was built partly of plywood, which delaminated over years of use. I recently built a new one from solid wood, so I’m taking this opportunity to blog about this simple but essential part of my workbench.

The design is very simple. It’s a wide board reinforced with battens. It has slots that allow it to slide up and down on threaded rods that I have epoxied into the end of my workbench. The stop is secured with wing nuts.

The planing stop can be raised just a little bit so as to handle regular planing jobs. One of its advantages is that it can be raised as little as 1/8″, which allows me to plane down very thin pieces of wood.

Or it can be raised up to about 2″ high for planing thicker stock, or wider stock on edge. If I had wanted, I could have made it bigger so I could raise it even higher, but I don’t think I’ve ever needed a planing stop any higher than this.

Construction Details

If you want to add something like this to an existing bench, the exact dimensions are not critical, but it helps to have some general dimensions to start with. My planing stop is about 19″ long (along the grain) and about 7″ deep. The main stop is made from 3/4″-thick red oak. (I had a scrap of a trim board that I cut in two and edge-glued.) The cross-grain battens are made from yellow pine scraps and screwed on. The oak is dry enough and the screws are set close enough together that cross-grain movement shouldn’t be a problem. The battens add stiffness to the stop, which is important in use.

I cut the slots by boring a 1/2″ hole at either end of each slot and cutting out the rest with a coping saw. Measure carefully so that, when you drop the stop all the way down, it sits level with the benchtop. Or, better yet, cut the slots so the stop sits just a little bit proud of your benchtop and plane it down exactly level. But don’t worry; the top of the planing stop will soon get chewed up by your handplane, and you’ll find that it eventually sits just a little bit below your benchtop.

The stop slides up and down on 3/8″ threaded rods, and the extra-wide slots allow the stop to slide up and down easily. They also allow me to set the stop a bit higher on one end than on the other, which is helpful when working stock of slightly different thicknesses.

The threaded rods were cut from a piece of 3/8″ all-thread I had lying around. (You could also use carriage bolts with the heads sawn off.) I secured them in the bench top by drilling holes a couple inches deep into the end-grain and gluing the rod in with original JB Weld epoxy. Leave plenty of rod protruding so the wing nuts can be loosened without the nuts falling off. Leave them longer than you think you’ll need them–you can always saw them shorter with a hacksaw if you want. Use washers behind the wing nuts so you don’t chew up the wood behind them. Be sure you let the epoxy cure completely before using the planing stop!

Right now the slots in the stop only go about halfway down. That’s partly for leverage–if you think of the planing stop as a lever, with the rods as the fulcrum, the force created by planing a piece of wood against one end needs to be countered by the bottom of the stop pressing into the end of the workbench on the other end of the lever.

Should I need more height on the planing stop, it’s easy to grab my drill and coping saw and cut the slots just a bit longer.

This planing stop is easy to build and extremely versatile, and it can be retrofitted to practically any workbench.

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The Story of My Stanley # 4 1/2 Smoothing Plane

A week ago I wrote about my growing preference for lightweight tools instead of heavy ones. While writing that post, I remembered that I had never blogged about how I came to own my Stanley #4 1/2 smoothing plane. Here is the story of that hand plane.

It all started in about 2006, when I first took a one-day class in hand-tool joinery from Paul Sellers, who was then teaching at the Heritage School of Woodworking at Homestead Heritage, near Waco, TX. Paul talked the class through an essential set of hand tools, demonstrating how to use each one to make three basic joints (the dado, the dovetail, and the mortise & tenon). I still remember that, of his personal hand tools, he seemed especially pleased with his smoothing plane, which was a Stanley #4 1/2. “The workhorse of the shop,” I think he called it.

It’s funny how a remark like that can stick in your head, because somehow I got the idea that my first smoothing plane should definitely be a #4 1/2. Now I certainly don’t think that was Paul’s intention, but I nevertheless went home from that class determined to find one. But as it turned out, the Stanley #4 1/2 is not a very common size plane to find on the used market–much less common than, say, the #4. Plus, Waco, TX, had never been a great place to shop for used hand tools, and I struck out at local antique shops. Shopping online was possible, but eBay was much more of a gamble back then, and I was unwilling to take even small financial risks, seeing as we were living mainly on my graduate stipend at the time.

So being unable to find a vintage # 4 1/2 in the few places I thought to look, I was taken in by a catalog product description and purchased a new Anant #4 1/2 smoothing plane mail-order. (It wasn’t so long ago that many of us were still shopping from the print catalogs put out periodically by companies like Woodcraft and Highland Woodworking.) I used that plane for five years. It did work, more or less, but the adjustment was imprecise and the blade did not hold an edge very well. It was also pretty heavy as smoothing planes go.

Then, in the spring of 2011 (we had moved to southern Alabama a few years earlier), my wife was at a local church rummage sale and happened upon three very rusty handplanes.

There were three very solid hand planes hidden under all that rust and grime.

She called me at work and described them to me over the phone, asking if I wanted them. They were very rusty, she said, and one was a Stanley. She described their general dimensions, but it was hard to tell what exactly they were. But it was half-price day at the rummage sale, so I figured we should take the chance. She bought them for $2.50 each.

When I got home to find the three planes on my workbench, I couldn’t have been more pleased. There were two jack planes, one of which was a Stanley #5 that was probably made in the 1960s or 1970s (the one in the middle, above). I fixed it up and passed it on to a friend who was interested in woodworking. The other one was an identical size, but had been manufactured before 1900 by the Birmingham Plane Co. in Connecticut. The rust on it had gone pretty deep, but I cleaned up that one for my wife to use. We still have it.

And the third hand plane? It was a Stanley #4 1/2. The hard-rubber depth adjuster wheel immediately told me that it had been made during WWII. There’s not a bit of brass on it anywhere, all the brass having gone to the war effort. The handles, too, are made from stained beech wood, which replaced the rosewood that Stanley had been using before that time.

I had been waiting five years to find this plane, and I was delighted.

As I cleaned it up and put it to use, I found that it was a substantial improvement over my Anant plane, and I wrote up a blog post showing exactly why.

After using my Stanley #4 1/2 for a while, I found that the only part of the plane that displeased me was the blade. The back of the blade was severely out of flat, with one raised bump in the center, so it was difficult to sharpen and the chipbreaker just did not sit right. After repeated attempts to flatten the back of the blade, I decided to replace the blade and chipbreaker with new ones. (I now have the equipment and skills to correct a problem like that, but I didn’t back then.)

I had been very pleased with a replacement blade I got from Lee Valley for my spokeshave. The Veritas PM-V11 steel blade (a proprietary alloy made exclusively for Veritas) promised to hold an edge longer than typical tool steels but be nearly as easy to sharpen. This time, the catalog description was not deceptive–their steel really is that good. So I got a PM-V11 blade and chipbreaker set from Lee Valley and have been very happy with it.

Over the last decade, this hand plane has touched every major furniture project I have worked on, and it has made miles of fluffy shavings. Even though it now feels pretty heavy in my hands, it’s still a gem of a tool, and I’m very grateful to own it.

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Loose the Weight

I used to prefer heavy tools. Now I don’t. It has taken me longer than it should to recognize that, given the choice between two tools of similar quality, I should choose the one that is lighter in weight.

Let’s begin the story in the 1990s. When I was a teenager living in the corn belt, I worked a few summers doing de-tasseling for a local seed corn company. (If you know what de-tasseling is, you are a rural Midwesterner through and through.) Some days our crew was taken off of our usual de-tasseling work and set to de-rogueing instead. That, at least, is what we called it–an agricultural practice so localized that I’m not even sure it has a proper spelling. De-ROGUE-ing is how we said it.

Anyway, here’s how it worked: local seed companies grew seed corn in their fields, and the seed corn had to cross-pollinate. As long as all the cornstalks were of the right varieties, the seed would be good. But cornfields always produce some “volunteer” corn–stalks that grow from spilled or dropped kernels from previous years’ crops. Normally that’s not a problem. But the more volunteer corn you have in your seed corn field, the lower the quality of the seed it produces. Those volunteer stalks were called “rogues,” and we were sent out into the fields to chop them out. (Agricultural work like this was the only legal employment for teenagers under 16 years old, so the crews were mostly 13-15 year-old boys.) We were equipped with sharpened hoes with handles cut short, about 2 1/2 feet long. Starting at one end of the field, each of us walked down our row keeping an eye on the stalks on either side of us. Any stalk that looked different from the rest, especially one that was a lot taller than the rest, was chopped down with one swing of the hoe.

I tell you all this because, when I first went to grab one of the many de-rogueing hoes out of the back of an old farm truck, I selected one that was a bit heavier than the others. My arms were not exactly muscular, but I liked the heft of it. One of the older, more experienced guys suggested I use a lighter one instead. But I held onto that heavier one, thinking it would give me good momentum as I swung it. I wouldn’t ever have to swing twice at the same cornstalk.

As it turned out, that guy was right. Swinging the heavy hoe a few times was no problem. But swinging it regularly as I walked all the way down a quarter-mile row and and back again, I began to feel the problem with wielding a too-heavy tool. Especially after I lost control of it at one point and landed a blow square on my shin. (I still have the scar.) Every time thereafter, I chose a lighter hoe.

I have not always remembered this lesson. As I have worked extensively with the kit of hand tools I have assembled over the last 15 years, I have realized that a few of them are really too heavy for me. I have a broad chisel, for example, whose beveled edges are barely ground down, and whose blade is therefore much heavier than it needs to be. I’ve been meaning to grind the beveled edges down further in order to make the tool lighter. One of these days I’ll get so tired of the extra weight that I will take the time to do just that.

Then there is my WWII-era #4 1/2 smoothing plane with the thick aftermarket iron. I hadn’t used it for about two months when I picked it up the other day and suddenly realized how heavy it is. Just picking it up by the handle made my wrist ache–and I have used this handplane quite a lot since I acquired it years ago. Before, I hadn’t really thought much about its full weight, but I had been using some of my smaller hand planes–my Stanley 3 and a block plane–for some delicate projects, and in comparison the wartime #4 1/2 with its extra-thick casting felt like hefting a cannonball.

This particular #4 1/2 was made during WWII, when the inexperienced machinists employed by Stanley had trouble working with the relatively lightweight castings. It was all too easy to grind too much or drill too deep and ruin the casting. So despite wartime metal shortages, they added thickness to the castings, making the resulting planes heavier than before.

Then, early in the Hand Tool Renaissance (the first decade of the millennium), many woodworkers recommended that a handplane–especially a smoothing plane–should be fairly heavy. The mass of the tool, it was said, would help to carry the plane through each stroke through sheer momentum, and it would reduce the chances of the blade “chattering,” or leaving ridges on the workpiece instead of taking a single, clean shaving.

I now wonder if that is why modern hand planes, including some really nice ones, are built to be quite heavy. Today, my Stanley #4 1/2 weighs in at 4 lbs. 10oz., and that feels heavy in my hands. But it’s a lightweight compared to a brand-new Lie-Nielsen #4 1/2, which is almost a pound heavier at 5 lbs. 8 oz. A new WoodRiver #4 1/2 is heavier still, tipping the scale at over 6 lbs. That’s a lot of weight to push across a board a dozens or even hundreds of times over the course of a day!

As it seems to me, the conventional wisdom was both right and wrong. I think that the extra weight of a heavy smoothing plane does indeed create momentum that will carry the tool through the cut–but at a significant cost. First, the user has to create that momentum, and the extra energy used to get the plane moving will cause fatigue. And then the user has to stop that momentum at the end of each cut and bring the tool back to its starting place. Pushing and pulling a heavy plane will soon tire you out.

Something we woodworkers missed a couple decades ago was that earlier, professional woodworkers almost universally preferred lighter-weight tools to heavy ones–not just the lighter-weight cast-iron smoothing planes like the Stanley #3 and the Stanley #4, but also the wooden hand planes that weigh only a fraction of the weight of a metal-bodied plane of similar size.

A lot of modern woodworkers can tolerate using a too-heavy hand plane because they’re not using the tool for long periods of time. Often they are working with stock that has been planed by machine, so they are just taking a few light passes over each board before a final scraping or sanding. But if you are using the a hand plane (or any tool) all day long for days on end, then you had better get the lightest one possible.

That, I think, is why I have been gravitating more and more to my 1920s-era Stanley #3 with the original iron. It’s lightweight, coming in at a mere 2 lbs. 13 oz.

I can push it back and forth across boards for hours without feeling its weight in my hands, wrists, and forearms. (By the way, wooden planes may appear lighter than their metal-bodied counterparts, but my wooden fore plane is actually a couple ounces heavier [4 lbs. 3 oz.] than a 1920s-era Stanley #5 [4 lbs.].)

I’m not going to get rid of my trusty Stanley #4 1/2, though. It’s a well-built tool that has served me well for more than a decade. But I think I am now fully cured of my youthful preferences for extra weight in these objects.

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Crosses and Craftsmanship

When my church did some remodeling, they salvaged several painted pine boards and commissioned me to make some decorative crosses out of the wood. Some were gifts for volunteers; others were sold in a missions fundraiser.

From a joinery point of view, these crosses could hardly be simpler to make. It was just a matter of cutting the stock to size, smoothing the edges with a handplane, and cutting one simple lap-joint for the crosspiece. The whole operation required very few tools, and I was able to complete about ten of them in a single morning, though I think I made about 30 in all.

Since the cross is quite literally the crucial symbol of Christianity, we Christians see crosses all the time. That familiarity tends to obscure the historical reality of crosses as they were used in ancient Rome. Doing this project, I found that I could not build crosses without imaginatively entering the first-century Roman world in which crosses were made not to hang on a wall but to hang people on, not to decorate a room but to publicly torture criminals to death.

In what follows, I want to explain the process I used to make these crosses from this special wood, while contrasting that with how I imagine an original Roman cross might have been put together–without, hopefully, going into too much graphic detail.

Let’s begin with overall design and stock-selection.

I had my stock provided to me. It was pre-painted and pre-distressed pine 1X4s that were 2′ to 4′ long, so the first job was cutting out smaller sections to appropriate lengths and widths. In doing so, I had to cut around a few really big knots, but I also endeavored to retain as much character in the wood as possible. Since the wood had been salvaged, I wanted it to look salvaged. The smoothed sides and lightly chamfered edges contrast nicely with the rougher, distressed surface on the front.

The overall dimensions of the crosses were determined by the available stock. Because I was cutting the stock out of 1X4s, I made the pieces just over 1″ wide, allowing me to rip each 1X4 into thirds. Beginning with the width, I calculated that the top and two arms would need to project about three times the width of the center joint, and the bottom would need to be twice that again, or a little more. So I cut the long pieces 11″ long and the crosspieces 7″ long. On the finished pieces, these dimensions allow for a finished cross that shows off just enough of the distressed surface to be visually interesting, but not so much that the whole thing looks blocky. It should be able to hang on a wall in a fairly small space.

I can only assume that the dimensions of an original Roman cross would have been just enough to accommodate an average human body. A 6′ crosspiece would be about right, with the vertical piece needing to be a little longer, plus extra length to drop into a hole in the ground. An 8′ beam would be plenty. In most illustrations of the crucifixion of Christ, we see dimensioned wood used in the cross. But I can’t imagine anyone bothering to square up timbers for such a use. I suspect that a Roman cross would have been assembled from timbers in the round, probably no more than 3″ or 4″ in diameter. Given the landscape and climate of ancient Israel, timber of all kinds must have been at a premium. Probably only the knottiest, most defect-ridden logs would have been used for crosses. Come to think of it, though, this would also have been a good use for reclaimed timber, so I suppose it’s just possible that some crosses could have been made of dimensioned timbers after all.

For this project, I pulled only a few tools out of my tool chest. And so, I suppose, would a Roman craftsman. Other than cutting the timbers to length with an axe or saw, there wouldn’t have been much to making a cross in those days. It seems most probable to me that the beams would have been lashed together with rope. You probably wouldn’t have wasted good hardware like expensive, handmade nails on a project like that. Yet a cross would have had to have been study enough to bear human weight, and (without going into extra-gory detail) to withstand some real stresses of movement during use. Perhaps the maker would have cut out a rough notch or two with an axe so as to reinforce the lashing, or perhaps the whole thing was nailed together after all.

On these crosses, I opted for a single notch in the crosspiece, which makes the crosspiece stand out a little from the upright, giving the whole object just a little bit of visual depth. Because the joint is not load-bearing, it only needed to be tight enough to look tidy.

After planing the edges of the stock smooth and straight, I turned the stock over and placed the crosspiece exactly where I wanted it, and made sure it was centered on the upright.

I marked out the joint with a knife and marking gauge and then sawed each side. Finally, I popped out the bulk of the waste with a chisel and pared down to the line. The lap joint was then ready to assemble with just a couple drops of glue to keep everything together.

But first, I used a block plane to chamfer the edges a little bit. Especially on the stock with the darker paint, the chamfers really emphasize the color contrast. (The cat was annoyed that I was working in his favorite napping spot.) Because these are decorative pieces, a little decorative touch that didn’t take too long seemed appropriate.

Roman crosses, on the other hand, were emphatically not decorative. Aesthetics were surely not a consideration at all. Yet the crosses were built for display–for the public execution of enemies of the state. They and their victims were meant to be seen–even to be stared at. And they were intended to be ugly and horrific.

And we know they were made and used in batches. Jesus was one of three men crucified on a single day. Accounts of other crucifixions have reported hundreds of victims being executed at a time–a typical Roman response to, say, an insurrection. In such exceptional cases, they probably used whatever timber came to hand: dry or freshly-cut, new or reclaimed, really anything you could drive a nail into. But in Jesus’s case, I can only assume that there was probably a pile of ready-made crosses available for the small but steady stream of capital sentences meted out by the government, and that the same crosses would have been reused on victim after victim until they inevitably deteriorated into firewood.

Batch production is efficient, and the Romans could build things with remarkable efficiency when their public honor was at stake. I can only assume the same was true of the crosses on which they executed their criminals. An order of a dozen crosses would not have taken long to fill. The maker, who might well have been a slave, would have had to make each one quickly but also “to spec,” and could only hope that he would never end up on one himself.

It seems that Christians began to use the cross as a religious symbol only after crucifixion was abandoned as an execution method in the Roman world–or perhaps it was abandoned because of the spread of Christianity, which worshiped a very specific victim of crucifixion. Regardless, crosses only begin to appear regularly in Christian art several hundred years after the death of Christ.

And now, here we are, with twenty centuries between us and the original event. The cross has become a symbol–an emblem that evokes a deep, even spiritual response from people who know something of what it means. It is a sign of pain, shame, and death, but paradoxically it is also a sign of hope and of life eternal. As an image, a cross could not be simpler–a horizontal line crossing a vertical one. Anybody can draw one. Nearly anybody could make one.

This whole project puts me in mind of an old poem called “The Dream of the Rood,” one of the oldest known poems in the English language, in which a man dreams that he sees the cross of Christ, both as a gruesome instrument of death and as a bejeweled beacon of hope. Here are a few lines in which the dreamer tries to describe the cross as it appears in his dream:

I could still look upon its traumas,
wretched & old, so that it began at once
to sweat blood along its right half.
In every part I was dredged in regret —
I was afeared for its fearful beauty.

I witnessed the change, the streaking beacon,
warping its own in clad & color:
sometimes it was blood steaming,
swilling in trills & rills of ruddy sweat;
sometimes it was bedazzled with richness.

You can read a translation of the whole poem here.

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Tool Chest Guided Tour

Ten years ago, I was collecting hand tools at a rapid rate. I had most of them tucked into various crates and tool boxes, but others were just sitting on the benchtop because I had no better place to store them. I was in serious need of some real, permanent tool storage.

At that time, Chris Schwarz had recently published The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, a book I devoured. In the book, Schwarz shows how to build a complete kit of joinery tools, as well as a tool chest to store them in.

So in the summer of 2012, I set out to build my own version of that tool chest. I constructed mine a little differently from Schwarz’s, however. Schwarz opts for a dovetailed carcass made from pine, and he paints the whole thing. It’s not supposed to be fine furniture, he argues, so there’s no need for fancy wood and decorative details. In principle, I agreed with him.

And yet…..

My situation was different. I didn’t have access to good softwood in the right thickness and didn’t know where to get any. (I had yet to discover some local hardwood suppliers.) But I did have some really lovely wood on hand that I wanted to keep near me. I had some quartersawn cherry from a tree grown locally, as well as some spalted pecan wood from a neighbor’s tree that I had sawn and dried myself. Plus, my workspace is in my dining room, so I the whole family was going to see this tool chest every single day. I wanted it to be easy on the eyes.

This is the tool chest I built:

And I still am happy with it. After having worked out of it for nearly a decade, there is really nothing about this tool chest that I would change.

Now here is how the chest looks after a decade of use:

The cherry frame has darkened nicely, and the Danish-oil finish is fairly dull now, but it still sets off the spalted pecan panels nicely. The chest rolls on swiveling casters that are concealed by the lower skirt. I wore out one set of cheap casters a few years ago (the urethane tires disintegrated) and replaced them, but otherwise the chest has undergone no maintenance whatsoever.

Opening up the chest, you will find two sliding trays. The top one is fairly shallow and houses block planes and layout tools–as well as some carving gouges (currently). The top tray is for small tools I frequently need to grab quickly. The lower tray is deeper and holds bulkier tools like marking gauges, hatchets, spokeshaves, and more layout tools.

The beauty of the sliding trays is that storage is flexible. I have been working on a lot of wooden spoons and bowls recently, so I’ve placed my carving gouges in the uppermost tray for ease of use. When I turn back to joinery, as I often do in the summer, those can get stowed in the lower tray to make more space for layout tools in the upper tray.

Because one tray slides underneath the other, they can both be visible and accessible at the same time. Or I can slide the lower tray underneath the upper tray to access the bottom of the chest.

The bottom of the chest holds larger tools, especially hand planes, joinery planes (all wrapped up in bags and cloths), my rasp-and-file roll, and mallets. Oh yeah, and a couple notebooks I keep for sketching out designs.

There is also a saw till that holds two handsaws, one for crosscutting and one for ripping, as well as a tenon saw. Up against the front of the chest are all my chisels, as well as my two main joinery saws–a dovetail saw and a carcass saw. The saw and chisel rack enables me to pull out these tools one or two at a time, use them, and immediately put them away so they don’t clutter the benchtop.

The above picture was taken with the two sliding trays removed, but all of this is accessible when I just slide the trays forward or back. The chisel rack is accessible at all times.

You would think that I’d have to stoop down a lot to reach items near the bottom of the chest, but I really don’t. Because the chest is up on casters, and most of the tools at the bottom are fairly tall, I almost never have to reach down to touch the very bottom of the chest.

And when I’m done, I put everything back and close the lid. The chest rolls right under the overhang of my workbench, where it’s out of the way but not out of sight.

I do have quite a few more hand tools than fit into the chest. I have a number of additional hand saws and hand drills/braces stored in wall-mounted racks, for example. But I could theoretically store every one of my essential tools in this chest if I had to.

To date, my tool chest is still one of the most satisfying projects I have ever built.

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When a Furniture Maker Buys Furniture

The other day I suddenly realized that, to my knowledge, I have never actually bought a piece of furniture. When we were newlyweds, my wife and I gladly accepted nearly any secondhand (or third- or fourth-hand) furniture that was offered to us. Then I began building furniture for myself. So after nearly 20 years of marriage, my wife and I had still never bought furniture.

Until recently. She and I were on a casual date, browsing local antique stores looking for vintage tools and other household goods. We pulled up in front of one shop we’d never visited before, and immediately we spotted this oak stool on the front porch along with a bunch of other grimy chairs. Before we even got in the door, I had decided that this was coming home with us.

In terms of styling and overall dimensions, this piece is clearly a “joint stool” or “joined stool,” modeled on a 16th-17th-century form–as popularized today by Peter Follansbee. (Here he is demonstrating construction on Roy Underhill’s Woodwright’s Shop.) I’ve never seen a piece quite like this in the wild before–certainly not down here on the Gulf Coast where most of the good antiques are made from solid mahogany and displayed in antebellum house-museums.

Wanting to know more about this stool, the first thing I did was turn it upside down. Looking at the hidden surfaces will tell you a lot about a piece’s construction–and may give glues as to when it was made. It has no manufacturer’s marks anywhere, which suggests to me that it might not be factory-made.

The frame does seem to be assembled using mortise-and-tenon joints, all of which are extremely tight. I think I can just see a bit of a tenon and shoulder on the underside of one of the rails (above). However, I believe that the joints are not actually drawbored. The peg in the leg is too low to serve much purpose in drawboring, and it doesn’t go all the way through the leg. I’m pretty sure it’s a decorative feature, though I appreciate the fact that whoever built this was paying close enough to the design of a genuine 17th-century joint stool to replicate the look of a drawbored joint.

The underside of the top and the backs of the rails are all planed straight and smooth, and all the pieces are planed to exactly the same thickness–a clear sign that the stock was prepped by machine rather than by hand. The moldings are quite regular, though I can’t tell if they were made by a powered router or by a set of molding planes.

It has also been very lightly used over the years.

There is very little wear on the bottom of the feet, indicating that it hasn’t been dragged across very many floors. The chuck marks from the lathe are still clearly visible on the bottom of each foot. I’m guessing it spent most of its life as a side table and not as a sitting stool.

The legs are splayed a little bit, but not nearly so much as a 17th-century joint stool’s would be. Still, it’s fairly stable in use. The top is perhaps the most curious part of the whole piece. It’s glued up from three pieces of solid oak, with a traditional thumbnail profile all the way around. But it’s not flat. Instead, it is slightly concave across the grain, and while the original glue joints have separated on the ends, the top is still quite solid. The concavity is entirely intentional, and the top rails are even scooped out a bit to accommodate the curvature. It makes the stool remarkably comfortable to sit on.

But I cannot for the life of me see how the top is attached. There are no fasteners anywhere to be seen. I can only assume it is assembled with blind dowels or something of the sort.

I can’t tell when this stool might have been built, but my best guess is sometime in the middle of the 20th century. Why then? Because there seems to have been a short-lived resurgence of 17th-century-style furniture in the mid-20th century, and this stool fits that description perfectly. The construction methods fit that era, too.

Regardless of its age, it is proving useful at home. As soon as I brought it home and cleaned it up, the stool immediately became a favorite in our house. It’s just the right height for perching on, whether one is a kid or a grownup.

I am especially fond of this piece because I have owned Follansbee and Alexander’s book Make a Joint Stool from a Tree (pictured above) for almost a decade now. I really enjoyed it when I first read it, and I have always meant to make myself a couple joint stools. But I’ve never gotten around to it. Now, the enthusiastic reception that this little stool has gotten in my house has definitely bumped the joint stool to the top of my list. I have a feeling that everyone in the family is going to want one.

I’m especially excited to build my own joint stool because I now have a model to work from. I definitely won’t copy this one exactly, but having one in my hands gives me a concrete place to start–especially in terms of overall dimensions. And that’s part of the value of buying a piece of antique furniture. Not only have I acquired a piece of high-quality furniture at a bargain price, but I am also inspired to make something like it.

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Names on Tools: Past and Future Owners

Awhile back, I published a post about vintage tools with previous owners’ names on them. While it’s fun to imagine (and sometimes deduce) the character of the men who owned and used these tools before they came into my hands, I have other tools whose owners (past and future) are better known to me.

Here are three handsaws (and one chisel) that have family significance–and that get used regularly in my shop.

The first saw is a little panel saw for which I made a replacement handle several years ago. It’s special for a couple of reasons. First, the handle is made spalted pecan wood that came from a neighborhood tree. It is wood that I dried, milled, and shaped myself. Second, the handle is smaller than a normal one. I modeled it on a Disston 7 handle, but I scaled it down by 75% for my kids to use, and right now it fits their hands perfectly. My son, who is in elementary school, especially enjoys sawing with it. Eventually he will grow out of it, but that will be a few years yet–and when he does, I’ll set this saw aside for grandkids to use.

The second saw is a peculiar one. The saw blade has no etch that might identify it (or none that I can see), but its size and shape is quite common in old saws. The puzzling part is the handle, which is made from a ring-porous wood–definitely not the traditional apple or beech wood handles found on most vintage hand saws. The top of the handle is not exactly flush with the top of the blade. And while most saw handles are about 7/8″ thick, this one is only 3/4″. All that leads me to believe this handle may be a shop-made replacement.

The thinner handle makes this saw ideal for a woodworker who has a smaller-than-average frame, so this saw now belongs to one of my daughters. When I cleaned it up, I carved her initials in the handle. Perhaps in another hundred years, some woodworker will be wondering who “KGS” was.

The final saw, however, has initials of someone who is long past but whose name I do know.

When my father-in-law gave this saw to me, he pointed out a detail that I might have taken me years to see on my own. The initials “HLT” were neatly stamped into the handle. He told me that those were the initials of his great-grandfather, who had owned the saw. Given that this saw dates from 1878-88 (judging by the medallion), I don’t doubt him.

This saw shows a lot of signs of wear–the top horn broke off long ago, and the nib seems to have been filed off. But the saw still gets used regularly in my work. I’ve got a lot of respect for a tool that’s still going strong after 140+ years!

And speaking of grandpas, the final tool I’m featuring today belonged to my own grandpa.

I don’t recall when I first picked this chisel out of a bunch of tools at my parents’ house, but I’m glad I did. Back then, this chisel had a much shorter handle–probably one that had been broken off at one point, and it had a ring fitted to the end that, upon close inspection, appeared to be a section of iron pipe.

The chisel itself has no maker’s mark anywhere on it, but it is made of very good steel. It takes and holds a very keen edge, and it’s the perfect size (1 1/4″) for many paring tasks at the workbench.

Eventually I used a friend’s lathe to turn a new handle for the chisel out of pecan–yes, the same tree from which I made the saw handle above. And I took the old ring and fitted it to the end of the handle. Even though I almost never strike the chisel handle with a mallet, I felt that the ring and the chisel had been together for so long that they ought to stay together. I still reach for this chisel more than just about any other in my collection.

I do enjoy using tools that have a story. But a story in itself doesn’t make a tool good. I don’t go on using these tools just out of sentiment. I use them because they are very well-made, and because they suit my purposes. That’s one reason they’ve lasted as long as they have. And boy am I glad they have!

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Meet My Dumb Apprentices

When I began working wood in earnest more than 15 years ago, I was working almost exclusively with hand tools, by choice but also by necessity. Most operations–smoothing boards and joining them together–were fun and even efficient with a fairly small set of well-tuned hand tools. But others were not. When it came to thicknessing wood, or sawing thick pieces of wood into thinner ones, I was frustrated.

Back in the days of pre-industrial woodworking (before the 20th century, more or less), professional joiners seem not to have done those operations very much. While they were certainly capable of thicknessing a board by hand or sawing their own veneer out of a board, they mostly bought their wood in standard thicknesses (1/2″, 1″, 2″, etc.) from professional sawyers. But I have been working largely with construction-grade lumber (which comes in standard 1 1/2″ thickness) as well as wood I’ve cut from the log myself, all of which takes a lot of muscle power to dimension by hand.

So over the years, I have integrated a few machines into my workflow. Although I don’t enjoy working with the machines nearly as much as I enjoy working with my hand tools, I do appreciate the way in which they do so much of the necessary grunt-work, freeing me to focus more on doing joinery by hand.

They are my dumb apprentices in the strict sense of the term–inarticulate helpers that serve a humble but necessary purpose.

Bandsaws

My bandsaws are probably the most important power tools I have, and the ones I use the most. I have two: a 14″ Steel City saw and an older 12″ Craftsman saw.

The bigger saw is just right for resawing thick stock into thinner pieces, as well as for breaking sections of logs down into rough boards. I keep a wide resaw blade in it permanently, and some time ago I attached a shop-made outfeed table to the table, greatly increasing the saw’s usefulness.

The smaller Craftsman bandsaw was my first bandsaw, and it continued to earn its keep even after I got the bigger one. I use the Craftsman to rough out blanks for spoons and spatulas. It’s not a powerful saw, but it’s simply-constructed and is fairly easy to keep in working order.

Both of these saws came to me as fixer-uppers, and they have both challenged me to become a troupleshooter/mechanic, replacing or even fabricating worn parts as well as keeping everything adjusted properly. Of all my power tools, my bandsaws are the ones with the most finicky adjustment.

Planer

I do not use my electric planer very often, but when I do need it I am very glad I have it. DeWalt makes two homeowner-grade planers, and this is the larger (13″) one.

As soon as I acquired this planer, I built a wheeled stand for it. Because it is very loud and spews a large amount of wood chips, it is a strictly outdoor tool. I wheel it out into the yard and set it up wherever I think the grass could stand to have a bit of mulch (often near a bare patch). I put in my earplugs, and I start feeding boards into it.

I have been very pleased with how much physical work this tool has saved me. While it won’t make boards straight like a proper jointer would, it does have a long enough bed that minor irregularities can be planed out, resulting in surprisingly straight workpieces that need only smooth planing by hand. And being able to quickly bring several boards down to precisely the same thickness has been very gratifying.

The planer is one of those tools that I emphatically don’t enjoy using. It’s heavy, loud, and messy. But I like the results. So I keep it around.

Drill Press

My drill press might be the only power tool that I actually enjoy using. This floor-standing drill press was made for Craftsman by King Seeley, probably back in the 1950s.

This machine is a workhorse. It purrs like a kitten and has required absolutely no maintenance since I replaced the power cord and switch a few years ago. I also love the art-deco styling, and I wish I could shine it up and keep it in a climate-controlled environment.

I don’t use a drill press all that often in the course of my regular joinery work, so this tool often sits idle. I have, however, been known to drill out large mortises with a Forsner bit before squaring them up with a chisel. With a wire wheel chucked into it, I can gently clean rust off of hand tools I have acquired second-hand.

I use my drill press mainly for pipe-making. Drilling a pipe accurately requires very precise boring, especially of the airway. While I could theoretically do that by hand, the drill press makes such operations predictably accurate.

Bench Grinder

The bench grinder is a dirty, utilitarian tool that I would not be without.

I inherited this grinder from my grandfather. My grandmother remembers him using it to sharpen kitchen knives. It still runs perfectly. On one side I keep a good Norton wheel with a Veritas tool rest, which I use to re-grind chisels and plane irons as necessary. On the other side is a very worn wheel (which was on the grinder when I received it) that I use for rough shaping tasks. I always keep a tub of water nearby for regularly cooling the metal I’m grinding.

While all my other dumb apprentices make direct contact with wood, this one doesn’t. Instead, the grinder keeps other tools in working order. While the vast majority of my sharpening is done at my workbench with traditional whetstones, sometimes an edge gets damaged and needs to be re-ground. That is where the grinder comes into its own. This grinder has saved me a lot of time–and I would rather spend my limited time working wood than trying to hone a chip out of an edge on a whetstone.

Chainsaw

All of the other dumb apprentices you’ve met have been able to stand up on their own, but this last one needs to be carried.

My chainsaw has proved to be an invaluable tool time and again. Not only have I been able to help neighbors clear downed trees after hurricanes, but I’ve used it as I collect wood for spoons and other items as well. When I get a call from a friend who has had a tree come down, whether an oak or a cherry or some other species, I can carry my chainsaw over, cut the log into manageable lengths, and split the log with my sledge and wedges. It’s a perfect balance of modern machine-power and pre-modern muscle-power.

My saw is a Stihl 250 with an 18″ bar, which means that with care I can cut up a log that is over two feet in diameter (as in the picture above). Kept sharp, it cuts quite effectively. It is a dangerous tool, and I never pick it up without a little trepidation. Of all my dumb apprentices, it is the one that could do me the most damage if something went wrong.

I Promise I’m Not Amish

I’m afraid that sometimes I give the impression that I’m dedicated to 100%-unplugged woodworking, maybe out of some weird fascination with Amish ways of life. But that’s not true. I love my hand tools, and perhaps I go on using them partly out of a stubborn desire to resist the corruptions of the modern world–and still more to feel independent. But I do depend on these and other machines to get my work done.

Even though I don’t talk about these machines much on this blog, I would be hard-pressed to identify a project I’ve built in the last five years that hasn’t involved at least one of these machines. So I thought it appropriate introduce my dumb apprentices to you and express my gratitude for all the labor they save me.

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Building the Mule Chest

Most of the time my projects begin because I have a problem I need to solve, and sometimes they begin with me reading a book. This time it was both. The book I’ve been reading is The Anarchist’s Design Book by Chris Schwarz. The problem I needed to solve was my daughters’ lack of storage space in their shared bedroom.

First, the problem: the girls needed a place to store extra bed linens and blankets. And they also needed a place to store personal keepsakes–special papers, little toys, and other personal items that wouldn’t go in their dresser drawers.

Then, the book: The Anarchist’s Design Book gives several design options for what is traditionally called a “mule chest”–that is, a blanket chest with one or more drawers beneath the chest. (Schwarz figures that the term “mule chest” comes from the fact that the chest is a cross between a blanket chest and a chest of drawers, just as a mule is a cross between a donkey and a horse.) This sounded like a good solution to my daughers’ storage problem.

Oh, and there was one other problem: thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, wood prices this summer have been astronomical. Prices for construction-grade pine in my area had more than tripled over the past year! I had planned to build a few projects this last summer but decided against it because of the cost of the wood.

So I set myself a challenge. Could I build this entire chest using only wood I already had on hand? As I picked through my stash of lumber, I felt sure that I could–if I didn’t mind some odd choices here and there.

It took me quite some time to figure out how to get every necessary part out of the wood I had. I spent a whole day sorting wood, cutting pieces to rough size, and planing them down with the electric planer. Although I intended to do most of the building by hand, I relied on my electric tools to reduce the boards to approximate size and shape at first. After that, I used my hand tools almost exclusively to bring all the pieces down to exact size and fit them together.

The sides are construction-grade pine, which is salvaged from old scaffolding boards I planed down. There are some stray screw holes here and there, but that’s just character–nothing that will affect the strength of the finished chest. The top, the front, and the drawer fronts are all cut from two big cypress boards that were given to me some years ago.

The basic construction of this chest is very simple. The front and back of the chest are rabbeted and then nailed onto the sides. The bottom of the chest, which is eastern red cedar, is captured in dadoes cut into the sides.

I got lots of practice cutting rabbets by hand. It’s a simple, four-step process. First I mark the rabbet across the width of the board using a marking knife on the face and a marking gauge on the end. Next, I saw the shoulder with a backsaw to the right depth. After that, I split off most of the waste with a chisel and mallet. Finally, I plane the rabbet to finished depth.

These rabbets are especially wide, so I planed next to the shoulder with my shoulder plane and removed the rest with a regular block plane. It left me wishing I had a rabbeting block plane, but these two planes work together very well.

Here you can get a good idea about how the upper section of the chest is constructed. Boards are rabbeted on the ends and then nailed onto the sides through the rabbets. The boards are also shiplapped with each other in order to allow for wood movement. I could have glued up the front and back into solid panels, but it was faster to shiplap them than it would have been to wait for the glue to dry.

I went back and forth on drawer construction methods. Since the rest of the chest was nailed together, I considered just rabbeting the drawer fronts and back, and then nailing on the sides. My kitchen drawers are constructed that way and have stood up to decades of daily use. Then, almost before I realized what I was doing, I found myself laying out half-blind dovetails on the drawer parts. Why? Because that’s how I make drawers, I guess. Even on a nailed-together chest, drawers get dovetailed.

Although most of the chest is made of softwoods, the drawer sides are made from some black walnut offcuts with a lot of sapwood and some deep gouging in places–you can see one such place on the side of the lower drawer in this picture. It’s one of those odd wood choices that I hope some conservator will be puzzling over in a couple hundred years.

I did buy strap hinges to attach the top, though I had to bend the lower parts of the hinges to fit. I scored the metal with a hacksaw and then bent the hinges in a vise with a hammer. I’m not much good at metalworking, but I get by.

The battens for the underside of the lid are cherry scraps–another odd pairing of hardwood with softwoods. Even the cords that hold the lid were salvaged from an old window blind. The only parts of this chest I bought for the project were the hinges and the drawer knobs–I even had all the nails on hand already.

I had to build this chest fairly quickly, since school was starting and my free time was quickly becoming more limited. The carcass is not as square as I’d like it to be, though you probably wouldn’t notice unless you approached the finished piece with a framing square.

For a finish, I opted for as simple an oil finish as possible. I applied the Danish oil on my porch while the remnants of Hurricane Ida were blowing past. I was able to apply the finish at mid-day and move the chest back into the house that same evening.

This is not the most refined pieces of furniture I’ve built, and in several places I let haste override precision. But in the end, this chest solved our problem. Extra bed linens fit in the top (with room to spare!), and the girls have a little more private storage space–which is so important when you’re sharing a room with a sibling.

Posted in Boxes, Build-Alongs, Furniture, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments