Thursday, March 24, 2016

Oh The Saw-Geekery Of It All

There's that moment when you're working on a project for a while. You're dialing in the details, creeping up on perfection, and you realize you're too close for clarity. You've weighed too many variables to avoid doubt. 

Too close for clarity. 
The solution calls for a fresh set of eyes. Every so often I am fortunate enough to get a call from my friend Mark Harrell over at Bad Axe Toolworks to act as that set of eyes . . . or maybe just hands, because with Mark's saws I could probably saw to the line with my eyes closed. 

I wouldn't dare to . . . the threat of traumatic amputation looms too large. His saws are damn sharp. 

If you spend just a few minutes visiting with Mark about the design in his saws you discover there is not one detail that's an accident. Consideration in everything. The folded back to tension and re-tension the saw plate, The design of the handles, based on treasured and tested antiques, but dialed in to just the right degree of grip and sized to fit different hands. The specs of the saw plate, thickness, teeth per inch, amount of set, the method of setting the teeth . . .  

For christ sakes he's dialing in the plates to optimize reduction in the heat build up that occurs in the act of sawing. The heat can warp a plate temporarily and Mark just expects his saws to be able to do more. The wood selection for the handles and the finish options on the fasteners is even a consideration to make these saws more desirable. Every one of my (eventually) four saws uses a different species of wood for the handle. It just makes it easier to be sure which I'm pulling from the tool chest. 

It's all thought out with a purpose. And I'm only flashing on the surface of what I understand. Talking saws with Mark must be akin to talking chess with Garry Kasperov. 

He gives me a call and I make time because I know it's always something special. This was no exception. The final decisions were being made for his new take on the carcass saw. 

How much more basic does it get than a carcass saw? You take a backsaw, usually a 12" saw plate, file the teeth crosscut and go to town. My Bad Axe carcass saw follows this recipe, I've used it for years and never thought once about using anything different. I had my carcass saw needs covered so why go through a re-design phase in something that works great. 

Because you might come up with something that works better!

I know, . . hold on. The process started with a saw Mark calls the Stiletto. I've never asked Mark to authenticate my theory, but here's how I see it rolling out. It starts with competition. There are many more tool makers on the scene today than when he decided making saws could be a good idea. Competition is a good thing for those of us making sawdust. Everyone wants to sell us a dovetail saw, because all of us want to buy a dovetail saw. 

The influence from The Cult of Perfect Hand-cut Dovetails is strong. I understand they're a subsidiary of the Illuminati.  

What does an innovative maker do? He steps back and rethinks his dovetail saw from the teeth up. He brings years of obsessive saw-geekery and experimentation to bear, and produces a fantastic saw. The Stiletto works so well, but I, personally, was able to resist. I cut a lot of dovetails, but time and experience in the shop has opened my mind to what saws are most important and I use my carcass saw at least three times as much as my dovetail saw. 

Then I found out Mark was bringing the same redesign thinking to the carcass saw and now I was intrigued. Last week, I had the prototype Bayonet (because what else would accompany a Stiletto?) put in my hands and set at a bench with a pile of dried hard oak offcuts to tear into. I ran that saw until my shoulder was sore. 

The final decision was on the prefered saw plate thickness. I ran one, then waited as James (One of the Bad Axe Spec Ops) to switch out to a thinner plate. 

I'm not sure he knew I was taking his pic as he worked. I hope it's OK.
First time I've met James but it was a pleasure. If you can follow him
on Instagram @0352devildog.
If I remember right we changed from a 0.02 thick plate to a 0.018 plate. To my mind it sounded ridiculous that 0.002 (that's half the average thickness of a human hair) would make a difference. I was wrong. 

The thicker plate worked well made the cut, moved through the cut, and sold me on the saw, but moving to the 0.018 plate was like hitting the perfect pitch in harmony. Suddenly the saw was singing in the cut. You could see it in the smile on Mark's face too. 

"Yup, that's the winner!" 

It's inspiring. The work of a man obsessed with finite detail, a ground up redesign of a workshop staple, and the ability to carry out consistency in those details. Every time I visit him I try and steal just a little of his work ethic to bring back to my shop. 

The day wasn't all Bayonet. I spent quite a while working with the Stiletto too, enough that I couldn't walk away from that upgrade either. Before I left I'd shaken Mark's hand on acquiring both. They're in his quene now and I'll have them in my hands and at my bench in a few weeks. 

I use these saws and use them hard. Dovetails to dados I cut all my joinery by hand, and this is where the Bayonet really grabbed my attention. I'm not sure if it's the lower profile to the plate, the 14" length, the hang of the handle, or a combination plus more. A carcass saw to me is more than a finer crosscut. It handles dados, tenon shoulders and sliding dovetails. The Bayonet really feels specifically built with joinery work in mind and I love that. 

Standing on the shoulders of a historic product, with all the things that made it great, yet raising it up to a higher level. 

I call Mark a friend, it's easy to call him a friend, but even if I hated his guts, his saws are the ones I want to rely on day in and day out in my shop. I've tried a lot of different backsaws, nearly all of them (including legendary makers long out of business). Some come close and I'd consider just as good. None are an improvement over Mark's. 

You don't have to believe me, You should just give them a try for yourself. 

More news when the new recruits arrive in the shop. 

Ratione et Passionis

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Dutch Tool Chest Build: Challenge Accepted

Lately I have been more than passingly obsessed with efficiency in the workshop. Many of us swim the historical waters of hand tool woodworking for different reasons. For some the journey leads to obsession over detail. The perfect surface. The perfect hand cut dovetail. The perfect and pure experience found communing with the corpse of an ancient Black Walnut because the work of my hands will be it's sole chance at redemption and reincarnation.

It often starts like this. Happiness is new stock in the back of the truck headed home to the shop.
I spent an hour flipping through the 1x12" by 12' stock at my closest home center
to bring home a couple of boards destined to become my traveling Dutch tool chest. 

How much more will my grand children's grandchildren appreciate this inherited artifact when they hear the unbelievable story of Great Grandpa Oldwolf and how he cut down a hundred trees with his teeth and planed the wood smooth with his toenails to achieve such a perfect jewelry box. (Clearly I have developed some irreverent ideas about the concept of "heirloom" furniture as well)

Getting the stock to size and gang cutting the dovetails was the first job. 
Careful stock selection had yielded pieces flat enough to not need extensive surfacing.  

I keep coming back to a passage in "The Joiner and Cabinetmaker" that's admonishing care in taking measurements. The tragic tale of Bill Sharp tells how this journeyman was careless in recording measurements at a client's home. He built the cabinet two feet wider than the space and "not high enough by several inches."

This was not Journeyman Sharp's first mistake, but it was his last at this shop, He was dismissed of his duties despite the face that he finished a rather large piece of commissioned furniture in the span of a week. Oak and pine> Bespoke. Entirely by hand. (though there are apprentices around to probably assist in the grunt work of planing and surfacing the stock to dimension.The book is vague on this.)

I actually screwed the side boards together temporarily to cut and plane the slope
so both matched exactly. Then I separated them and lined them up
to lay out the dado for the board dividing the top and bottom compartments.
If you ask me, this is the real challenge passed to us through history. There is much rumination and romance on the labor of working by hand. Everytime I go on a historical site tour the guides are quick to point out "Frontier Jim built this cabin by hand, That means he didn't even have a chainsaw." or "It took twenty men with twenty shovels twenty days to dig this stretch of ditch twenty feet deep."

Hand work is labor, and labor is sweat, but a little sweat is not equal to Herculean feats of effort. It mostly requires finishing something you start. I do a lot of handwork and I'm a fat man of questionable health, what's your excuse?

All the case joinery cut, it was time to glue it up

The challenge is not "Can you do it by hand?" The challenge is, "Can you do it as efficiently?"

Power tools, CNC, hand tools, lightsabers: bring them all to the starting line. Everyone gets a pile of rough sawn oak and pine. The starting pistol fires and Go!! Plan a large cabinet to customer specifications. Include doors and drawers. Cut, plane, join, glue, screw, and tattoo together a aesthetically pleasing work and have it ready to deliver. (since the book is vague on whether Journeyman Sharp's cabinet had finish applied we can leave that out)

Did you meet the deadline? I believe it's a doable thing, but it would take some long days. I'm certain Journeyman Sharp didn't have the a 40 hour work week or hour long lunch breaks either.

As the glue set I cut and glued up the panels for the lid and the fall front.
Once the glue had a couple hours of set up I removed the clamps.
cut recesses for the drop rod that holds the fall front,
and nailed on the front pieces. 

I had a concept and a challenge, I'd started a while before building a simple shelf for the shop in a single evening of effort. I took to my instagram account, posting pics and bragging about building the carcass in a day. I failed but some things got in my way.

First, I didn't really start until the afternoon, so it was really dutch tool chest in an afternoon. A different prospect. Second, when it's not a real job, life is allowed to interrupt, We took some time that evening and the next to step through the process of adopting a rescue dog. A "one in a million" breed, ball of energy we call Jojo.

"Why hello ladies . . . Have you been missing a little Jojo in your life?"
This Guy!!
By the end of the first night in the shop I had the carcass joined together and the front nailed on and the back screwed on. I used screws because if I want to modify anything it's easy to back out a couple screws and go.

I finished the fall front and the lid the next day I decided to breadboard the lid with oak to for wear and to help keep the panel flat. It took a few more days to fit the hinges and hardware and paint the beast.

In the end I fell short of the challenge, but I was close enough I'm certain it's something I could accomplish and I feel that's a big deal.

When you reach the point where you can efficiently move through the basic steps you've achieved a certain plateau. I won't say the words "Don't have to think about" because if you're not thinking, you're probably screwing the pooch. Thoughtfully and directly moving through the basics frees up a different portion of your mind and you can see and envision farther along the path.

Suddenly while you're cutting dovetails, you're organizing and prioritizing beyond the next glue up. As a craftsman, it's not a bad place to stand.

Ratione et Passionis

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

I've Got A Dutch Tool Chest and A Plan.

Popular Woodworking published Chris Schwarz's article on the Dutch Tool Chest in the October 2013 issue. If I had to guess without researching I'd say he spent about a year writing about them on his blog and using them in classes before the article. From my vantage it's a popular thing for people to build, it's simple and looks good. It has an unique, dare I say iconic shape to it with the sloping lid and it has enough storage inside for a reasonable kit of hand tools.

So what if I'm three years late to the party.

I needed a new chest to take along to demos that carried a larger tool capacity than the small chest I've used to this point. (Besides, in an attempt to fix something I didn't like, someone lost their temper and it met an unfortunate, though timely, death.)  I want to set up at fairs and events to build and finish a piece of furniture in a day, all by hand. Large boarded chests, carved boxes, staked chairs . . .  you name it.

I have found when people see hand tool woodworking, it's like watching a magician. There's similar wonder involved, they just don't think such a thing is possible. The more recognisable names in magic in recent years have become so by taking magic off the stage, killing the over the top productions, and taking their sleight of hand to the street in front of small crowds. Basically bringing magic to a populous who might never think of attending a formal show.

As someone who spends a lot of time thinking and writing about woodworking (and aspires to write more) I am aware that most of my audience is made up of other woodworkers. The discourse is satisfying and there are ideas to trade about and friendships to be made. The downside is, it's preaching to those already converted.

Masturbation is satisfying too, but it doesn't get you anywhere.

The most frustrating conversations I have about woodworking are with people who have no real touchstone to it. The question I hate the most is "What kind of woodworking do you do?" because they want me to say things like "I make chairs." or "I reclaim boards from old barn sides, run a wire brush over them, then drywall screw them together and sell that shit at holiday craft fairs."  It's difficult to explain "I like to build carved furniture based on forms abandoned after the 17th century, oh and I'm currently researching and writing a book on medieval furniture." because the average person has no connection to the words I'm saying and they don't fit into the soundbite conversation they want to have.

"Hey Derek, I hear you do woodworking."

"I enjoy making sawdust. Why?"

"Do you sell anything you make?"

"Sometimes. Why?" (I still always ask even though I know it will be awful. The Dictates of the Social Contract are difficult) (Warning: The link is full of NSFW language)

"I saw this collapsible outdoor wine caddy made from a 2x4 on Pinterest last night. It had a really cool finish where the guy burned the wood so it had these dark lines. Have you ever made one of those before?"

"No I haven't."

"How much would it cost to have you make one?" (Though they're not really that interested, it's an impulse buy and if they had to wait even a week they'd be on to the next shiny thing.)

(I cop out) "I'm sorry I'm so far behind on things in the shop I can't take on more right now. When I get caught up I can look at it if you're still interested."

Does this conversation make me elitist? Probably.  Does my part in it make me an asshole? Most definitely. But it is so difficult to explain what I do when at most they've seen Ty Pennington and pals whip up a whole house full of special tricks and treatments in an hour of prime time television. The thought of making is such a radical idea when for thousands of years of human history it was the only thing we could really do.

The other side of the coin is people hear I work mostly by had so they assume I pour hundreds of hours of work into a piece.

"Wow, that carving is really intricate. How long did it take you?"

"It's a pretty good sized panel, all told three to four hours."

"No way. Did you say all by hand?!" (looks at me like I somehow cheated)

How do you re-introduce people (who are not already converts) to this concept of making, and making efficiently without compromising quality or design.

I think you pretend to be David Blaine and take it to the streets. You practice it a little, do a couple dry runs, memorize a bit of a script and make a show of it. Different from David Blaine, I wanna show my trade secrets, I want you to find out it's not magic, it's not mysterious. It's a totally possible and doable by everyone who has the gumption to pick up a tool.

I may be way off base with this whole thing. The Dutch Tool Chest I've built is the first step in creating a mobile platform to work from.

Chris's knockdown English Workbench will be the second.

The next several posts will cover my take on the Dutch Tool Chest.

Ratione et Passionis

Monday, March 14, 2016

Open For Interpretation

So you want to write a book . . .

25 inches tall.

63.2 pounds.

God only knows how many words and images are in this stack.

Would you believe it's missing a few books I borrowed to my daughter? They have disappeared into the book and craft cavern we call her room. Would you believe I could have added more off my bookshelves? Would you believe this doesn't constitute the rarer books I have traveled to university libraries to read and the pile of digital manuscripts and books I've gone over would probably tower over this stack by double.

I have put a good amount of my life on hold for this book. I desperately want to read through my copy of Peter Galbert's "The Chairmaker's Notebook" but I won't let myself just yet. I want to start organizing classes to teach. I want to query and submit more magazine articles.

I want to have this book done.

I know I haven't posted anything on this blog for two months. I hate reading posts on beloved blogs that have been mostly abandoned that start out, "Holy shit it's been a longtime since I've posted. Guess I've been busy. But my new years resolution is to post at least once every other week."  Then another six months goes by before another apology floats.

So no apologies here. I don't have researchers and friends to help fill in the gaps. Honestly that's not my style either.

I'm working hard on the book. There is a burden of research I feel I have to carry because I'm not a doctoral candidate in European Medieval History or Archeology, or Art History or any tag that takes thousands of dollars in borrowed money to buy. I am not part of the academic establishment. I stand apart.

As far as I can tell I've found just about every relatable work written on medieval furniture, including works I have to translate piecemeal from French. They are all art historians and museum curators. With the exception of a few online enthusiasts, none are connected to the actual craft of making these pieces. They know words like "Mortise" and "Tenon" and "Dovetail" and "Age of Oak" by dictionary definition. They're missing the blue collar, dirt under my fingernails, at the workbench with saw in hand understanding that tells me those terms are more than words. They're fundamentals.

Acceptance is important as a human being and I truly hope, even though I'm not one of the crowd, academia will make some room for acceptance of my work once it's finished, I do call into question some of the things they've taken for granted. More importantly I hope my work is accepted by other makers interested in the history and even the styles. It's my biggest fear, nearly paralyzing, to be dismissed as widely missing the mark and fail at this work.

I can't wait until I'm far enough along to send it along to several critical people so they can tear it apart, and thereby make it stronger.

It's that fear that makes me overload on research. It's that pressure I hope will compress this lump of organic matter into diamonds. But it takes time.

Ratione et Passionis

P.S.  There is one book I reference a lot, but have little access to. "Mediaeval Furniture: Furniture in England, France, and the Netherlands from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century" By Penelope Eames. I consider it the most accessible and well presented works on the subject (let's say so far) Her approach to research stretched farther than many others even tried. Most importantly her work is on the furniture without prejudice, this is also unique. Other authors on the subject (I'm looking specifically at you Gloag and Mercer) seemed intent on critically judging the work as they were writing about it.

The closest copy is at the Kohler Library in Madison WI, a two plus hour drive - one way. It's unavailable to check out. I can only go there and read it. The purchase price of a used copy is well beyond my means at a couple hundred dollars.

I'm asking. If anyone has a copy on their bookshelves and would consider lending it to me for a period of time. I would treasure having an easy reference to it for the time being. Please drop me an email at if you can find a way to help me out.

Thank you

P.S.S. Thank you thank you for the awesome and rapid support!!  I am covered.  You guys are fantastic!