Winter approaches, we just had the first snowfall, but fortunately most of it melted — gives me one more chance to put stuff away for the winter. But, oh no! that choice ash baulk I had been saving to resaw has already been found by my friends the termites. Someone told me they go underground for the winter, but this crowd is still happily chewing away out by my logpile.
Years ago I had a small router plane with a screw adjustment that controlled the depth of cut. It’s been long gone (hopefully in somebody else’s toolbox), and I replaced it with one of the small Stanley 271s. A useful little tool — I use it a lot for flattening the mortises for mouthpieces in wooden planes — but annoyingly difficult to adjust depthwise. You loosen the screw and unless you are holding the iron you loose any reference to how deeply it was just set, which makes resetting at a slightly deeper setting very hit-or-miss. Suddenly, after years of frustration doing it this way, I realised that loosening the screw with the underside of the cutting edge resting against the edge of the plane’s mouth both prevents the iron from falling and allows me to deepen the setting with absolute control. Duh! How much longer am I going to have to live to figure out all these little details? Or is this the fun of the whole thing?
Still obsessing about moulding planes, or to be more specific, rabbet planes: for years I had thought how cool it would be to own a complete ‘set’ — meaning one of every size as produced by a single maker, Mathieson, for example. But I have come to realise that apart from the fact that few users ever owned a complete ‘set’, such a thing being unnecessary from the point of view of what each size might accomplish better than all the other sizes (the point being, of course, that the various sizes were largely made available for individual comfort), a greater vocabulary could be developed by a little judicious mixing and matching. So although I cling to ten or fifteen ‘sizes’ — ranging from 2in to 1/4in., the real justification (other than the psychological pleasure of feeling ‘complete’) lies in the differences of features other than size. Differences such as weight, length, denseness, angle of skew (or not) nickers, etc. Each of which is sometimes more appropriate for the job at hand than another plane might offer. The moral being that variety is frequently more interesting if not actually better, than consistency or the dreaded uniformity, We are not only craftsmen but creators, after all.
There are a lot of contemporary/modern tools I am grateful for, such as screwdrivers with unbreakable plastic handles and the ever-increasing variety of screw heads: Phillips, hex, pentagon, thumbscrew, cross, Frearson, French recess, Motorq, pozidrive, supradriv, Robertson, etc., etc.— all useful for specific purposes, I’m sure, but I remain happiest with the traditional straight slot. Yes, I know it’s not tamper-resistant, I know that powertools can jump out and damage the work, and conversely it won’t allow the driver to cam out and not damage the slot, etc., etc. But I’d rather not be concerned with so many twentieth-century potentialities. I make furniture, I fix my house and the slot remains my favourite. I can clean and recut the slot in screw heads if necessary, I can align the slots for that last aesthetic frisson of satisfaction, and I never have to worry about the cordless drill having a run-down battery or my having misplaced the appropriate driver.
My screwdrivers are always there, arranged by size, in my toolchest. They are easily sharpened and rarely deformed and are easy to use with almost any amount of required torque. This is because they are the old-fashioned wood-handled type. I inherited them from my father in England so their superiority over many if not most contemporary screwdrivers is remarkable.
Firstly, the steel — having been made in nineteenth-century Sheffield — is much stronger than the average plastic-handled screwdriver, which means the head never deforms when trying to remove a firmly embedded steel screw, the shank can be used as a scraper burnisher, unlike many contemporary screwdrivers whose steel is typically softer than that of even a cheap scraper, the shank is finished with a flat section below the handle which provides a place for using a wrench if handpower alone is insufficient, and finally, having sharpened or refinished the tip should this ever be necessary, it retains its shape much longer.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I prefer the wooden handles — most of which are oval rather than round for a better grip — the turning is nice, the patina is rich after so many years of use, and I find the look and feel of wood more harmonious with the wood I work with. A gaudy plastic handled tool is jarring on my bench. I do what I do, after all, more for the experience than the ‘efficiency’ or cheapness. and in these days of disposable transience I like the tangible connexion with the past. But that’s another story.
On the road again — this time to Cincinnati for the Joinery Conference. Get out those filisters, dados, and ploughs!
In my shop I continue to discover new tricks so long as I don’t work on automatic pilot. After thirty years of cutting tenons with haunches for grooved frame-and-panelling it suddenly occurred to me I don’t need to measure the cutback, only the depth of the haunch, since whatever the tenon measures can be copied exactly onto the mortise site—duh!
It’s not that I do everything by hand if there’s a faster machine method, but it’s surprising how machines tend to exert the ‘tyranny of exact measurement’ whereas hand methods can be a far quicker method of simple eye-estimates. After all, who can tell how wide a tenon is when once assembled? So where is the advantage of having taken extra time to measure it exactly?
My Ultimatum brace competes with my Bosch cordless drill in a complexity that ultimately undoes their usefulness. The Ultimatum is beautiful and fancy, and its ebony and ivory inserts and brass frame gleam but I frequently pass it over in favor of a simple Scotch iron brace that has a bit already in it, rather than unpack the drill roll from the bottom of my toolchest. My Bosch is similarly a masterpiece of modern design and technical complexity, but I frequently pass it over in favor of my old Milwaukee corded drill rather than wait for the batteries to recharge because it hasn’t been used for a while.
Pleasure fights with utility when push comes to shove, don’t you think?
However hard or fast I work it is never done. It never was, and it never will be. Without continual maintenance and repair everything eventually decays and disappears. We repair or replace but one way or another it all returns to dust. Just think of the lost Roman woodwork, not to mention the Greek, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and back on to the dawn of time when the first branch was leant against a convenient tree trunk to form a rude shelter. All gone. Just as is most of everything since: Gothic, Medieval, Tudor, 18th-century.
What remains—partly—is the accumulated knowledge of how to do it. Although this too, being constantly upgraded, slowly erodes earlier techniques. How much woodworking technique from a high-end Georgian or Victorian shop remains. Of course we are going to forget how to use a bow saw when a tablesaw is available, and why use an old woman’s tooth when and electric router is available? But does the contemporary corpus of technique truly equate with what we have lost?
Every time I repair something structural around my hundred year old house I’m struck by how cheap and insubstantial are the modern materials, even if they do supposedly insulate better, albeit at a cost, for example, greater toxicity, less (ultimately un-)permanence.
Woodworking is so circular. Tree, lumber, parts, products and ‘waste’, compost, trees . . . We bother because it is like respiration, mostly automatic and ultimately the defining act of being alive. No other real reason, at least on an individual basis—perhaps in total it adds up to an eternal process, but one in which the parts are indistinguishable. So what drives us to be distinguishable? Perhaps nothing more earth-shattering than the apparent joy of making a shaving: a whisper-thin, delicately perfect shaving that curls off the bench like a tiny applause for our perfectly sharpened, fettled, and operated plane. A momentary tribute to our patience and skill. A moment in the infinity of e larger picture.