January 1st — still at it: the first dovetails of the year get cut (three widths of a 7ft long wall-hung cabinet) and astonishingly a new challenge: I can’t stand the cabinet on end to lay out the pins from the tails, just not tall enough, and anyway there’s not enough height in my shop to stand on a ladder. So we learn how to cut things on the diagonal. It’s one of the things I like about woodworking, especially the bits I do by hand: no matter how much you learn or how many times you do something there is always a new challenge. And people complain about the constant learning curve involved in keeping up with constantly updated computer programs!
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.
Tools I inherit or collect — old tools, usually handtools — often feel like a comfortable antidote to the ever-increasing rate of planned obsolescence that typifies so much else of contemporary life. Much as I am usually pleased to get my new iPhone or a new car it’s a little discouraging to know that something I worked so hard for or saved up for so long is only going to be around for such a short time. I’ll never be able to enjoy the thought that I can pass these treasured marvels on to my children and grandchildren. If they even survive that long they will doubtless be looked upon with amusement. But I pick up a plane made a hundred years or more ago and I am pleased and grateful to have something that not only links me to my past but which also still improves my life.
However, looking at some of these things, I am also struck by the fact of my own obsolescence. They will certainly outlast me, as they have already outlasted previous owners. So the question arises, who owns what? Realising that I am little more than a temporary custodian I feel an increasing need and duty to pass things on while I might still have some say in the matter and avoid what would surely be a dereliction of duty if they were to come to an untimely and unseemly end while in my care.
Anybody want to take care of some extra tools?
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.
Getting ready for another woodworking show, I just uncovered a surprise in a damp corner of the shop: Forty-seven moulding planes from the 18th and 19th centuries, half of them wide complex profiles, the rest more common sash planes and hollows and rounds, ALL PARTIALLY EATEN BY TERMITES! the termite-chambered areas ranging from an inch or so at the toe to as much as the greater part of the stock.
The majority of this unusual collection retain solid areas of the profiled sole, and all have their original laminated irons. A great opportunity for a collector of the strange, or a restorer or planemaker looking for profile patterns and matching irons.
I can’t bring myself to burn these treasures, but if someone wants to offer $1 a piece for the irons and the cost of shipping, please let me know!
On the road again — this time to Cincinnati for the Joinery Conference. Get out those filisters, dados, and ploughs!