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.

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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.

Posted in Build-Alongs, Tool Repair, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Kitchen Essential: The “Staked” Stool

I don’t remember much of the furniture I grew up with, but one small piece stands out in my memory.  It was a small, oak footstool, which was kicked around my parents’ kitchen for years (sometimes literally).  I believe that it was made by some friends who were into woodworking at the time.  They made a batch of them to sell, and my parents bought one.  It’s survived several decades of heavy use in their house, so when I first began working wood, one of my first projects was a similar kitchen stool.

My resources were limited, and so was my skill set.  The original stool, which I built 10 years ago, was made entirely from pine.  I was not at all confident in my mortise-and-tenon joints, so I ended up just dovetailing the legs into the sides.

Dovetailed Footstool Texas

That stool stood up for five years, but eventually the legs all came loose.  By that time I had the tools to make tapered tenons, so I ended up cutting the stool’s top shorter, boring angled mortises, and installing new legs, also made from pine.

That version of the stool lasted five more years.  But even though I had reinforced the pine top with battens underneath, the whole thing finally split in half.  It was clearly time to replace this old stool with something more substantial.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

This is the rebuilt and re-broken stool, standing atop the pieces that will become its replacement.

In theory, there was nothing wrong with the rebuilt stool’s construction.  The only problem is that construction-grade pine is not a good material for the seat.  The open grain in the mortises doesn’t take glue well, and the wood is too easy to split.

An ideal replacement would have a hardwood top, preferably made from a close-grained hardwood, and legs made of a tough hardwood appropriate to the task.  I had no wood thick and wide enough for the top, though.  After considering the wood I did have on hand, I opted for a laminated cherry top and red oak legs.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

The cherry wood is a story in itself.  I had several boards that I had gotten for free out of a pile of junk lumber.  They had a lot of bug holes, and the ends were rotted–which is why they were free!  But each one had a little sound wood inside.  It took all the good wood from two of these 6′ boards to make one top for a stool.

As I cut into the cherry, I had a minimum length in mind (11″), but I was able to cut a few pieces longer (up to 12″), just in case I needed to cut around defects later on.  As I looked at my collection of wood strips, though, I found that I could place the longest ones in the middle and the shortest at the end, which would allow the ends of the top to be curved instead of straight.  There’s no functional advantage to curved ends, but they will look nicer.

The wood strips were pretty rough when I brought them into the shop.  I oriented all the worst edges in one direction (see photo above), which would be the bottom.  Then I planed the other three sides.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Even nasty looking lumber can clean up nicely.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Lots of glue and an overnight clamp-up later, I had a top.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

While top was in the clamps, I turned my attention to the legs.  I selected some straight-grained red oak I had stashed away for just such an occasion.  The oak came from a neighbor’s tree, which was taken down a while ago.  I had sawn up a few pieces to about 1 1/2″ square, expecting to eventually build some kind of a stool or chair.  I cut four billets to about 12″ long.  That allowed me plenty of leeway to eventually trim either end to final length.  The stool itself will end up 10 1/2″ tall.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

I planed them roughly square, but there was no reason to obsess over making them identical in thickness.  What’s the final thickness of the legs?  I have no idea.  Somewhere a little under the 1 1/2″ they started out as.  But it really doesn’t matter.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

I set them in cradles to plane the square pieces down to octagons.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

I love how the oak shavings pile up on the windowsill beside my bench.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

I marked the approximate center of each leg with a Forstner bit the same width as the small end of the tapered tenon cutter–in this case 1/2″.  I have a tapered tenon cutter (essentially a giant pencil sharpener) that allows me to shave down a perfect tenon.  First, however, it is necessary to roughly shape a taper on the end of the leg before cutting it to final shape with the tenon cutter.

For one insane moment I considered sawing the taper down–eight cuts on four legs.  Then I came to my senses and reached for my drawknife.  I marked 1″ below the tenon cutter’s length and started with the drawknife.  Although the tenon cutter makes an accurate cut, it can be slow going.  If the workpiece is just a little too thick, the tenon cutter stops cutting, and then it’s necessary to remove more stock with spokeshave before continuing with the tenon cutter.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Eventually I got them all cut.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

The next day, I turned my attention back to the top.  The glue was dry, and the top was ready to be planed.  This is the “good” side, which will be the visible top.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Planing across the grain with a jack plane quickly leveled out the slab.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

A smoothing plane with the grain leaves everything flat and silky smooth.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Viewing a planed surface with raking light helps identify any irregularities.  I know I’m going overboard here, though.  This surface is going to be stood on regularly, so it’s not necessary to make everything precisely flat and smooth.  But a smooth surface is less likely to collect grime and easier to clean than a rough surface.

Plus, cherry is fun to plane.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Next I cut a gentle curve on each end.  Marking out the curve was easy.  To mark this kind of curve, I’ve seen woodworkers rig up some kind of trammel or pencil-and-string apparatus.  But it’s not necessary to draw a geometrically-precise curve.  Your arm will do nicely.  Your elbow is the pivot point.  Place it in line with the center of the workpiece.  Then hold the pencil and swing your arm from side to side.  The result is as fair a curve as you could want on a stool.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

The only really tricky part of this whole build is boring the holes at the correct angle.  Set a bevel gauge to a pleasing angle (I used one of the legs on the original stool) and eyeball the rest. If I do this much more, I’ll make myself an angle-gauge that will stand up easier.  I kept knocking the bevel gauge over.

I did have to double-check that I was boring the correct angle on the correct side.  The last time I did this, I bored the holes backwards, and the bottom instantly became the top.

Actually, boring at the correct angle isn’t the hard part.  It’s reaming the holes at the correct angle that is difficult.  At least with the auger bit, once you’ve established the correct angle with a few turns of the brace, the bit will keep going at pretty much the same angle you started with.  The reamer, however, can be tilted in many different directions at any time, so you have to repeatedly check your angle every few turns.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Even with repeated checking, the angles are visibly different from each other.  Oh well.  They’re not far enough off to affect the stool in use.

Also, as you approach the final depth with the reamer, test-fit the leg frequently.  Once the top of the leg pokes up through the top, it’s time to stop reaming.  Mark the hole and the leg so you make sure you don’t get them mixed up later.

Now, as tempting as it would be to just glue up the legs now, it is best to do all the shaping and trimming work on the top before inserting the legs.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

First, I eased the edges just a little all around the underside of the top.  It gives the whole piece a lighter look.  I used a plane and spokeshave to relieve all the sharp edges.  You don’t want a sharp corner when you inevitably bash your shin against it while carrying dishes through the kitchen.

I also found just a few old bug holes and one little soft spot on the end that needed attention.  I saturated the soft spot with thin superglue, which will stabilize the wood.  I filled the bug holes with sawdust and dripped superglue onto them, too.  After drying the superglue with a hairdryer, I used a card scraper to remove the excess glue, leaving a perfectly smooth, filled void.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Once the top is shaped, trimmed, and smoothed, it’s time to get ready to install the legs.  I find that legs like this will tend to work loose if they aren’t secured somehow, so I decided to wedge the tenons.  Here’s how:

  1. Make the wedges the same width as the top of the mortise. Give them an aggressive taper–not too low an angle!  Use a tough, seasoned wood like oak or hickory.  These are pecan, also a tough wood.
  2. Insert the legs and mark a line across the grain of the top.  With the tenon saw, cut a kerf in the top of each leg to a depth of about 1″.  You just need the kerfs deep enough to allow the very top of the tenon to expand and lock the leg into the mortise.
  3. Use a half-round file or a knife to relieve the tops of the mortises, just on the end-grain.  That way, when you drive the wedges in, the tops of the tenons will have space to expand, creating a reversed taper and locking the legs in place.
  4. Place clamps across the top to prevent the top from splitting as you drive the tenons in.  This is a nice time to call in a little shop assistant to help.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Dinner was almost ready.  Once the smaller kids were done setting the table, they each came over to help insert the legs into the mortises.  We slathered the tenons with lots of wood glue, rotated them in the mortises until the whole surface was coated, and then pressed them in.  I had marked the inside of each leg so I got the best grain oriented to the outside.  Finally, we tapped each leg home with a mallet.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Before sitting down to dinner, we flipped the stool over and drove in the wedges.  Wedging tenons is a tricky thing.  If you don’t drive the wedges in deep enough, the wedging action won’t happen.  But drive a wedge in too hard, and you risk breaking it off inside the slot.  (If that does happen, about the only thing to do is to quickly cut another wedge with a blunt tip and try to drive it in on top of the broken one.  Sometimes it works.)  Just tap the wedge firmly until it stops.  If you’re paying attention, you’ll feel it stop.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

I let the glue dry overnight, then sawed off the tops of the wedges and planed everything flush.

On a stool like this, there are two potentially weak places, so it pays to reinforce each one.  The first is the joints, which can work loose over time.  Which is why I wedged the tenons.  The other potential weak spot is the top itself.  The long grain between the legs is unsupported and could possibly split in half if, say, somebody jumped and landed hard on the middle of the stool.  So as one final piece of insurance, I nailed two battens underneath the top.  For the battens, I selected a wood that is strong along the grain but fairly lightweight: southern yellow pine.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Although these battens will be mostly unseen, I still took the time to plane them smooth and chamfer the edges.  Not only will this make picking up the stool easier on the fingers, but it lends just a little bit of grace to what is otherwise a very plain design.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

What are the dimensions of the battens?  I don’t know, really.  Probably about 3/8″ thick and 1 1/2″ wide, more or less.  What is more important is that they are flat sawn or rift sawn, not quartersawn.  When nailing battens like this in place, the nails will hold better (and be less likely to split to wood) if they punch through the growth rings rather than between them.

I used cut nails, which require a pilot hole but hold very firmly.  With a good pilot hole, you can pound in these nails perilously close to the ends of the battens without splitting them.  I placed the battens as far apart as I could, which ended up being right up against the legs.

The last major step is to cut off the bottoms of the legs so the stool won’t wobble.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

The easiest way is to place the stool on a relatively flat surface (such as the top of your workbench) and use something of the right thickness as a gauge to mark around each leg with a pencil.  The end of my bevel gauge happened to be just right.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

The only difficult part of this operation is holding the work steady as you cut the legs to length.  It seems that however you hold them, the other legs are in the way of your handsaw.  Well, so be it.  Saw carefully, and try not to hit the other legs as you do so.

Just saw to your pencil lines, and don’t worry about being any more accurate than that.  You could try to get the bottom of each leg precisely co-planar so the stool will sit perfectly on a perfectly flat surface.  But that’s pointless because your floors aren’t that flat.  As long as you get everything close enough, the stool’s top and legs will flex a little as you stand on it, and it won’t wobble in use.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

The last shaping job to do is to relieve the sharp edges around the bottoms of the legs.  Chamfering those edges will make the legs less likely to splinter on the ends.  I used a spokeshave, but you could use a sanding block and sandpaper just as easily.

And now, here it is, the finished product:

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

The final dimensions are 10 1/2″ tall, 11 1/2″ wide, and 9 1/2″ deep.

Now to apply a quick finish to bring out the colors and make the inevitable dirt a little easier to clean off.

I applied some homemade Danish oil (equal parts polyurethane, safflower oil, and mineral spirits), using a couple heavy coats on the top especially.  After letting it dry for a day in front of a fan, it was ready to use.

Here’s a shot of the underside now that everything is finished:

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

And the completed stool:

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Now that it’s done, I’m thinking it’s almost too pretty to use.


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

Trash –> Treasure, or New Spoons from Old Furniture

When I sell my spoons and spatulas at craft markets, people always ask me, “Where do you get the wood?”  I often laugh because, truth be told, practically ever piece of wood has a story behind it.  More often than not, I don’t really find the wood; the wood finds me.  This is the story of one such wood-finding event, which happened just last month.

We were pulling up to the house when we spotted two old dressers that somebody had dropped off in the neighborhood trash pile across the street.  (It’s the spot where we dump yard waste for weekly pickup by the trash truck.)  They looked pretty rough from a distance, but we decided they might be worth a closer look.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

Upon first inspection, the dressers were indeed trash.  The veneer was peeling off of every visible surface, and some of the edges and feet were rotted–evidently from being exposed to standing water.  The hardware was gone, too.  If I were a furniture restoration guy, I probably would have passed these up as lost causes.

However, old furniture often contains good-quality hardwood that is excellent for spoon making, so I put on my work gloves, grabbed my crowbar and claw hammer, and started pulling them apart.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

A number of the drawers were stuck, so I began by removing the plywood backs so I could push the drawers out from the back.  What I saw was encouraging.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

Although the insides smelled pretty musty, the construction was nearly all solid wood.  The only plywood parts were the backs and the drawer bottoms.  And all the drawer sides and backs were solid mahogany, much of it with very pretty figure.  (More on that below!)

As I took the dressers apart, I began to get a sense of their age.  The machine-cut dovetails and mahogany-veneered case indicates mid-twentieth century construction.  They were nice dressers in their time–not the fanciest you could buy, but well built and attractive.  It’s a shame that they were neglected and allowed to get to this state in the first place.

After about an hour, I had disassembled both dressers entirely, picked out the pieces that might yield useful lumber, and discarded the rest.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

I carried home two dresser tops (both laminated oak), four dresser sides (all laminated poplar), a bunch of mahogany-veneered plywood (from the drawer bottoms), and quite a few drawer blades (the horizontal pieces that separate the drawers).

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

Not to mention a whole pile of pre-finished 1/2″ thick mahogany boards in various lengths and widths.  I think I’ll be making some pencil boxes and jewelry boxes soon!

But I’m mainly here for spoon wood, so on to the less-superficially-attractive stuff!  The sides and drawer blades had the best spoon wood: soft maple and poplar.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

But before I could start cutting spoons and spatulas out of this wood, I had to work carefully to remove all the nails and screws I could find.  I also pried off as much of the veneer as possible.

The next step was to bring out my templates and start deciding on the best uses for each piece.  Ideally, I would get a good mix of spoons and spatulas out of this pile of wood, but the nature of the material often dictates what I can and can’t do with it.  Looking at every piece from every side, I had to work around mortises, screw holes, and rot–all the while paying attention to grain direction.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

In many cases, I found I could nest different utensils within the same board.  It became a Tetris-like game of optimizing the placement of each utensil on each piece of wood.  Often it took me working through several possible configurations to get the most out of each piece.

Once I had the shapes laid out, I sawed each workpiece to length with a hand saw.  Then I sawed out the rough shape of each utensil on the bandsaw.  With each cut, I was careful to watch for stray hardware like embedded nails and other mortal enemies of saw teeth.

Back at my workbench, I went to work on some of the poplar.  This is tulip poplar, which has a light yellow sapwood but distinctively green heartwood.  The wood was very dry, but poplar works quite easily with hand tools, and in short order I was able to make some spoons and spatulas.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

The green color is entirely natural.  I think the shavings look like that vegetable-pasta that we sometimes have for dinner–except this has extra fiber.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

I did end up having to discard a few blanks because of flaws that only became apparent once I started carving, but much of the wood has turned out to be very useful.  So while I was sad to witness the end of what was once some nice furniture, I am happy to give some of the wood a new lease on life.


Posted in Furniture, Wood and Woodwork, Woodenware | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

How to Make Refrigerator Magnets from Wood Scraps

Some wood scraps are just too pretty to throw away.  For example, the briar wood burl from which I make tobacco pipes has beautiful flame-grain, and some even has eye-catching natural edges.  So every time I make a pipe, I set aside a few of the biggest off-cuts to turn into refrigerator magnets.  Here are some of the magnets I’ve made for my own refrigerator:

Briar Fridge Magnets 1-2015 - - 3

You don’t have to use briar wood for this kind of project–you can use any little scrap of wood with grain patterns that are too interesting to throw away.  Wood that is spalted, curly, or otherwise figured will work very well.  The simple process involves four steps:

  1. Cutting the scraps to size and shape.
  2. Sanding and finishing each piece.
  3. Drilling the hole in the back to receive the magnet.
  4. Affixing the magnet.

Even if you don’t have all the tools in the pictures that follow, you can make your own magnets with just a few, simple tools, which include a sharp handsaw, a drill, and sandpaper in several grits.

Let’s get started!

Step 1: Shaping

Cutting pieces of wood this small really should not be attempted on a power saw.  I use a sharp handsaw and a bench hook (the platform device pictured below) to cut the pieces to shape.  Theoretically, any size will do, but I find that it’s best to cut pieces to between 3/8″ and 5/8″ thick, and to make each piece between 1″ and 1.5″ wide/high.

Briar Magnets 1-2015 - - 4

You can now go directly to sanding in order to remove all the saw marks, but it’s faster to start with a sharp handplane if you have one.  Holding pieces this small can be a challenge.  I use a handscrew clamped to my workbench to hold each piece for planing.  Smooth down the front and each side.

Briar Magnets 1-2015 - - 3

It can be difficult to cut such small pieces to precise right angles, so I often use my shooting board to trim each piece square.

Briar Magnets 1-2015 - - 1

A shooting board is a platform that allows a handplane to be used on its side to trim a piece of wood to a precise right angle.  They’re not difficult to construct and are very handy in the wood shop.

Step 2: Sanding and Finishing

If you’re using wood scraps from your own scrap bin, you probably already have a good idea about what kind of finish will best accentuate the grain of the wood you are using.  You may want to use an oil finish to “pop” the grain, or you may just want to apply a clear coat of lacquer or polyurethane.  In any case, remember that these pieces of wood will be handled and looked at closely, so it’s worth the trouble to sand through several grits of sandpaper in order to achieve a smooth texture.

Briar Refrigerator Magnets 1-2018

For briar wood, the grain pattern shows up best when you apply a dark stain and then lightly sand it back.  For these magnets, I sanded through 150, 220, and 320 grits.  Then I used a dark red stain and sanded to 400 grit.  It is easiest to sand small workpieces by laying the sandpaper down on a flat surface and rubbing the wood back and forth on it.  For detail work, I like to use a foam-backed emery board (with sandpaper wrapped around it once the original grit wears off).

One little time-saving hint: you don’t have to finish the edges if you don’t want to.  I sand the edges to 220 and dye them black with some black leather dye (a black Sharpie marker would also work).  Not only does it save me the trouble of sanding through the grits, but the dark edges provide a visual “frame” that draws attention to the grain.  On some taller pieces, I orient the workpiece so the natural, “live edge” is on the top.  I stain the live edge black and stain the edges a contrasting color.

Briar Refrigerator Magnets 1-2018

It pays to consider the grain patterns when cutting out your workpieces.  You want grain that is not only attractive but that is accentuated by the shape you cut the piece into.  As you can see, it need not be a square or a rectangle.  If the grain suggests a circle, an oval, or even an ice cream cone shape, then do it!


After staining and sanding, I finish my briar magnets with Danish Oil, which I let dry for a couple hours before buffing by hand to a low luster.

Step 3: Drill the Hole on the Reverse Side

Up to this point, this project has been all about aesthetics.  Now it’s time to deal with mechanics.  You could just glue a magnet onto the back of each piece and be done with it, but I find it more effective to drill a very shallow hole and recess the magnet in the back just a little.  Not only does it ensure proper placement of each magnet, but it also increases the available glue surface and provides a little mechanical security for the magnet.  Run your drill at a fairly low speed if possible, and as soon as the bit starts to bite, stop.  Your hole need not be any deeper than 1/8″.  When installed, the magnet should stand just proud of the surface of the wood.  In use, this will make it easy for you to remove the magnets from your refrigerator.

Briar Refrigerator Magnets 1-2018

Before we go further, let’s talk about these magnets for a minute.  The magnets that I’m using are rare-earth magnets, which I get from Lee Valley. If you’ve never used rare-earth magnets, you will be shocked at how strong even a small one can be.  A 3/8″ diameter magnet can easily hold five or six sheets of paper on your fridge.  I buy a “sampler pack” with several different sizes of disks and rods.  (Warning: rare-earth magnets can be dangerous or even fatal if swallowed. Do not let small children play with them!)  Bought this way, they are about $0.50 apiece.  Bought individually, they run about a dollar apiece.  I especially like to use the rod magnets (1/4″ diameter by 1/4″ or 1/2″ tall) and the medium-sized circular magnets (1/8″ thick by either 3/8″ or 1/2″ diameter).

I use a drill with an appropriate-sized bit to bore the very-shallow hole in the back-side of each workpiece.  Most need only one magnet, but you can also insert three of the very smallest magnets (1/8″ disks) into a bigger workpiece for extra holding power.

Step 4: Affix the Magnets

Unlike a lot of conventional magnets, rare-earth magnets are “reversible.”  That is, either side will stick firmly to a metal surface.  However, one side is still a little stronger than the other and will hold more firmly.  In the kinds of magnets I use, the “back” or weaker side is marked with a faint, red dot.  If your magnets aren’t marked, a little experimentation will tell you which side should face out.

Because these magnets are so strong, you must use a very strong glue, or else the first time you try to pull the magnet off your fridge, the wood part may come off in your hand, leaving the magnet itself sticking tightly to the metal surface.  I highly recommend a good, 2-part epoxy.  The ones with the longest cure-times are the strongest when fully cured, so skip the “quick-set” kind and go straight for the 24-hour cure time.  (I have successfully used JB-Weld epoxy, but be warned that this epoxy is slightly metallic and can be difficult to spread on the magnets.)  Mix up the epoxy according to the directions, apply a generous amount to each hole, and carefully insert each magnet.  Then leave them alone to let the glue cure completely.

Briar Refrigerator Magnets 1-2018

In the photo above, notice that the magnets are spaced out on the workbench.  If you cluster them together too closely before the glue is cured, sometimes the rare-earth magnets will be attracted to each other and will be pulled out of the glue before it has had a chance to set.

Briar Refrigerator Magnets 1-2018

Once the glue and the finish are dry, it’s time to put them up on the fridge–or on whatever metal surface you like.

Briar Refrigerator Magnets 1-2018

This is one of the best uses for small scraps of figured wood that I have ever come across.  And every time I hang my kids’ artwork on the fridge, I’m glad I took the time to make these very special magnets.

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

My Love-Hate Relationship with Spoon Carving Templates

I don’t remember exactly when I began to use templates to lay out my wooden spoons and spatulas, but after I had made my first dozen or so wooden spoons, I hit upon a couple of spoon shapes that just “worked” for me.  There were two of them, and they were comfortable to hold and convenient to use.  So every time I went to make another wooden spoon, I grabbed those spoons from my own kitchen and traced them out onto my workpiece.

Eventually I got tired of running to the kitchen every time I made a spoon, so I endeavored to make some templates out of some scraps of seasoned pine.  Over the course of a couple years, I made templates for two kinds of spoon and two kinds of spatulas.  It took a couple of tries to get each of the templates just right, but once I did, they worked.

And worked.

And worked.

I’ve been using some of these templates for 7 years now.  I’ve made dozens and dozens of utensils from these templates, and they sell reliably at markets.

But a couple months ago, I was making yet another batch of spoons for an upcoming holiday market.  I was in the middle of shaping yet another spoon and thought, “If I have to make one more spoon following these exact same lines, I’m going to scream!”

I didn’t scream. I held it in. But I did start deviating from my lines here and there, and it felt good.

Varying length, width, and depth a little bit here and there as the wood allows has brought some of the spontaneity back into my spoon making, and that’s a healthy thing when I’m cranking out a batch of spoons for an upcoming market.  But if I depart too far from the template, I will end up with a virtually useless utensil.  A handle that’s only one inch too long or short, a bowl that’s just a half-inch too wide or too narrow, or a neck that’s just 1/8″ too thick or too thin is all that separates a great utensil from a mediocre one.

Let me illustrate.  Take a look at these utensils:

Old Spoons New Spoons 2017

The ones on the left were made “freehand.”  I had a piece of wood in about that size, so I made a spoon or spatula out of it.  Each utensil is functional, but there’s something about each one that makes it a little awkward to use.  Maybe the handle is a bit too long or a bit too short, too thin or too thick.  They’re not bad, but they wouldn’t sell at a market. The two on the right, however, were made from templates, and experience tells me they will sell.  They feel right in the hand.

So for me it’s a delicate balance between varying each piece a little bit and staying within a very narrow range of proportions that fit the ordinary human hand.

A lot of spoon carvers avoid templates entirely.  Some sketch the spoon out freehand on the blank before carving it, while others just go at it with a hatchet and knife and see what comes out.  It can be fun to just “follow the grain,” and people who work without templates or layout lines will often say that they “just let the wood tell me what it wants to be.” The problem with that approach, however, is that all the wood really “wants” to be is a stick.  You have to turn it into a spoon.  And while it is important to work within the limits imposed by the material, you can’t let the material control the process and expect good results.

Another problem with the “let the wood decide what it wants to be” mentality is that, in the end, it’s not the wood that will be using the spoon; it’s a human being.  Although there’s always something of a symbiotic relationship between a woodworker and his or her material, ultimately the human has to be the one in charge.

The results of the “free” method can be anywhere on a spectrum between amazing and useless, with most falling somewhere in the middle–often clustering around “bemusing” and “not quite right.”  And I have two drawers full of my earliest spoons to prove it.  If you’re just making stuff to amuse yourself, then there’s no harm in working spontaneously all the time.  But if you aspire to make an excellent object–something that is both useful and pleasing–and further, if you need to make money by selling those objects (as I do), then you had better lay your work out carefully before you start.

Posted in Carving, Musings, Wood and Woodwork, Woodenware | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

My First Woodworking Project (I think)

The other day I was rummaging around in an old box of scraps, and I pulled out a chunk of wood that I had completely forgotten about.

Doorstop 1996

It doesn’t look like much, but I’m pretty sure it’s my first woodworking project (not counting the tree forts I built with my brothers when I was a kid).  It’s a doorstop cut out of a 2X4.

I vaguely recall making this to prop a door open at a local church fellowship hall.  I used only one tool to make it: a circular saw.  Looking at the uneven surface, I recall that the sawblade was small (or I didn’t know how to adjust the depth), so it didn’t cut all the way through the 2X4.  So I cut part the way through it, flipped the workpiece over, and finished the cut from the other side–very unevenly.  I can’t believe I was happy enough with my work to put my name on it, but I must have been.

Doorstop 1996

The only reason I share it here is that it’s the first project I signed and dated.  I was a teenager back then.  I’m pretty sure I “carved” my initials and the year with a flathead screwdriver and a hammer.

It was not exactly an auspicious beginning to my woodworking avocation, but in one respect it was a telling start.  I represents a moment in my life when I looked at problem and came up with a solution that required only the tools and materials I had on hand.  And while I now have a lot more tools and a lot more materials on hand than I used to, this is still the approach that defines much of my work.  Whether it’s a need for a storage crate or a small table or a wooden spoon, I still delight in making what I need with my own hands.

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