Thursday, June 21, 2012

Thanks Lee Valley!

Yesterday I had the misfortune of a Veritas Small Plow Plane's depth-stop adjustment knob snapping on me. I was pretty keen to mill the grooves into my tool chest's lid, but no go. Being human, I will confess that I saw some reddish tones and wondered how I would possibly get this thing repaired anytime soon. I started to wonder if I should go ahead and mill them without the depth stop, trusting my adjustable square. I decided to just carry on with the tenons (not complete) and ignore the grooves for now. The silver lining is that the good people of Lee Valley respoded first thing this morning that they have sent out a new bolt, and I should have it soon. Chalk one up for reasonable companies!

I have not been documenting well, but the chest does continue. It is mostly complete, except for the lid and the interior tills. The base skirt and top "dust seal" are all in place. The mortises for the lid are complete. My mallet is smarting, as you can see below. The tenons need to be completed, and the grooves for the panel finished, and then the lid itself should be about ready. More soon! For now, here are some images:

Snapped bolt (thankfully removed with EZ-Out extractor)

Tenon marked out on all sides and ready to be cut by hand against better judgement

"First class" saw cut scribed and chiseled to ensure square and straight shoulder for tenon

My mallet has been dished for a long time but after this mortising session, it is getting pretty severe

Saturday, June 16, 2012

[Interview] Jim Tolpin of the Port Townsend School of Woodworking

Q&A with Some of My Woodworking Mentors

(If you want to know more about this series, please see the first installment)

Woodworkers in the Pacific NorthWest (or anywhere, really) owe it to themselves to take a class at, or at least visit, the Port Townsend School of Woodworking. Its beautiful setting, fully appointed workshops, and capable staff make it a truly worthwhile destination. Visionary founders Tim Lawson and Jim Tolpin have set out to ensure that traditional woodworking skills will not be lost to the grinding of time, and they are doing an admirable job.

If you cannot visit the school, Jim Tolpin's New Traditional Woodoworker is a great overview of his approach to the craft, mixing modern sensibility with ancient design and methodology. He doesn't stop at furniture making, he also builds these incredible Gypsy Vardos (atop modern trailers instead of horse-drawn wagons)

One of Jim's Gyspy Vardos

I've enjoyed being a student at the school as well as talking with Jim about his visions in founding the school, the possibilities for helping preserve woodworking lore, and more.  While he humbly denounces his own skills as a fine furniture maker, his knowledge runs stupendously deep, and his works are beautiful. He has recently been rethinking design, using ancient principles and tools to decode the harmonious proportion visible in nature and bring it into buildings and objects. Working with George Walker, he is soon to release a book about this style of understanding proportion, tentatively titled By Hand and By Eye. 

I am The Joiner's Apprentice (TJA) asking a few questions of Jim Tolpin (JT):

TJA: How did you get started in woodworking, and what are the major changes you have seen since then?

JT: Got started in Junior High School, classic case of building a birdhouse for mom. Ended up with an A in the class because I enjoyed it and the teacher could tell. I think most of the other kids just threw chunks of wood at each other during class and he was pleased to see a kid actually focus on woodworking. Nothing really has changed for me since then; it is still enjoyable and it is still my focus.

TJA: What is your favorite style to work in? what styles do you just not understand or have no interest in?

JT: I am drawn to the everyday/utilitarian styles and products of the tradesman (and especially their products for other tradesman: i.e. the village carpenters/wheelwrights/boatbuilders.) I appreciate the high craft of the cabinetmakers but have little personal interest in high-style furniture. 

TJA: What tools do you always look forward to using and/or what operations do you most look forward to, time after time?

JT: A sharp woodworking tool is a joy to use---because it can do what it was designed to do. I seem to especially like sawing --crosscutting boards in particular-- so darn satisfying!   Of course, everybody likes a sharp plane snicking its way across the wood, but somehow the saws call to me.

TJA: Outside of your teaching, home repair, etc, how much time do you actually get in your shop in a typical week?

JT: Some weeks more time  than others, but I’d say an average of a full day per week. I hope to increase that time significantly as I back out of other commitments. Woodworking with hand tools is now the most enjoyable way in which I spend my time, even if its just sharpening and putting away the tools for an hour.

TJA: Would you be able to recount experiences with your mentors and how you learned from them?

JT: Save this for another time, its a long story. Let’s just say I was lucky enough to be around some trades people early on in my woodworking career who were at the tail end of a generation of traditionally trained artisans and who were willing to pass on some of their know-how to a young whippersnapper outside any formal apprenticeship.

TJA: You have helped start a school called The Port Townsend School of Woodworking and Preservation Trades. Is this teaching trades related to preservation, or are you aiming to preserve  the trades themselves? Or both? What is your real vision in founding the school?

JT: Its really about preserving the trades (and their standards), at least that’s my focus with the school’s programming. Other aspects of what we do involve training people to do the work of preservation using a mix of traditional and contemporary techniques. 

TJA: As a woodworking teacher, what have been the biggest lessons the students have taught you?

JT: That its not enough to know the right way to do certain things---I need to know why its the right way or I shouldn’t be teaching it..

TJA: What is happening in the world of woodworking that you think is not getting enough press?

JT: I would love to see the Media show people that they can get into woodworking, and learn the joy of woodworking, without having to be thrust into the world of machines. It would be nice if they would come right out and say it around the ads for table saws: YOU DON”T NEED A TABLESAW TO DO WOODWORKING!!!!! Or a router, or a power sander, or a laptop plugged into a CNC machine etc.

TJA: Have you been able to get any of your children interested in woodworking?

JT: All of them to some extent...some to a large extent...others to simple appreciation.

TJA: You mentioned that in your hand-tool oriented shop, you can now listen to music clearly.  What do you like to listen to?

JT: If you came into my shop today you would have heard “First Aid Kit”...female vocalists from Scandinavia singing sweet American folk(ish)/country music originals.

 TJA: Thank you, Jim!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

[Tool Chest] Bottom and Guts

The past 2 days I have been fortunate enough to get some good time in the shop (thanks, family!). The new tool chest continues to emerge.

Tongue-and-groove cedar boards cover the bottom, which is nailed on for easy replacement. Not shown are 3 additional battens to provide one more layer of protection. Eventually it will be held up off the floor on casters. I put the better faces of the floor boards facing up. However, I realized that when carrying this chest, the bottom will be touched. I did go back and sand it pretty well, especially the edges where fingers are likely to go. I also smoothed the battens to be very comfortable and rounded their edges. I believe my future self will be saying "thanks, past self!" for this small act. Carrying furniture is one of my least-favorite activities but it does not need to be that way!

Creating the tongues and groove generates beautifully perfect curls.

The saw till is mocked-up to find the perfect distance between supports for all four saws. It is an act of compromise although the magic figure of 7 inches off center in both directions is not bad for any my saws. Eventually, I will cut some notches in the top of the large tenon saw's slot to accommodate the thick back and let it sit a tiny bit lower in the slot instead of hanging from its back. If you are interested in this (Chris Schwarz's "Anarchist's Tool Chest") chest design and have studied it, you may see that the saw till is extra-wide towards the back. This is a design I admired at Carl's blog. I've taken his idea and modified it slightly for my own chest.

A tentative set-up was tacked together with blocks and easy-to remove brads. I immediately like it and think this setup will work well, but wanted to make it quick and simple to change in case it won't. I've added a small rack for backsaws and rasps. It is supposedly ok to have rasps rolling around and touching each other but I am too nervous to subject such precious devices to that. Initially I wanted the bowsaw to be mounted on the lid, but as my chest is vertically challenged by 2", I could not afford the airspace. This setup will limit the travel of the tills by a tiny bit, but making the tills a little bit narrower will compensate for that without a noticeable loss of storage space. I also shortened the height of the saw till a bit to create more room above. This loses a bit of space beneath the saws, but it now allows the lower till to travel all the way over the saws. If this arrangement works out, I will plan to add some cleats or hooks to help support the backsaws and bowsaw. The wider opening for the bowsaw is to accommodate its bulbous handles, and will also act as a stop for the lower till.

It may have made more sense in some ways to continue working on the shell (skirt and dust seal) and then lid before getting to the inside, but as I have a chance to travel to pick up some lumber for the tills this weekend, I needed to verify my dimensions. While I tried to plan on paper, I had to actually set it up to see. My 22" (instead of 24") chest seems like it will work, but it is a narrow scrape.

I am already having to make some decisions! I cannot fit both the metal and wooden try planes I enjoy using. I will have to stick with the metal one, although I have been enjoying the wooden one more and more. Committing to only using tools which fit in the chest is not something I am adamant about, but I do think it is an excellent reality check. I will aspire to abide by this guideline unless I somehow get ahold of a set of hollows and rounds via some freak accident.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

[Interview] Joshua Clark of Hyperkitten Tool Co

Q&A with Some of My Woodworking Mentors

(If you want to know more about this series, please see the first installment)

Used tools are a mixed blessing. In some cases, their quality is superior to anything modern. They are generally less expensive than modern equivalents. They have rich and fascinating histories, and using a 100+ year old tool on a daily basis is testament to the type of durability which was once the only option and now is virtually extinct. On the other hand, they are often in poor condition, can be twitchy to set up properly, and may have very subtle problems that requires near-expert skill to diagnose and repair. Buying used tools at online auctions or at flea markets where you cannot really test the tool can be a big gamble. Some people just want to learn woodworking, not ancient tool history and repair.

Joshua and his staff

Joshua Clark of the Hyperkitten Tool Company can take care of much of this headache. His tools are carefully selected and when he says a tool will make a good user, he means it. If you don't agree, you can send it back after trying it for yourself. It is quite rare to find such a reliable source for anything in this day and age, let alone something as variable as old tools. In fact, part of me did not want to mention Joshua, and let the kitten out of the bag, so to speak. However, my greater sense of good has prevailed and I strongly urge anyone in need of building out their tool collection to consider Joshua's service. I've dealt with him a few times and it is always a wonderful experience. His periodic tool listings make for great window shopping too; I do not need many more tools but I still love to see what he has come up with recently. I've also asked him for tools not listed on a couple occasions, and he has found them for me. As I live in an area with few to no quality old tools for sale, this is a huge benefit.

I am The Joiner's Apprentice (TJA) asking a few questions of Joshua Clark (JC):

TJA: How long have you been woodworking, and what changes have you seen in the field since you started?

JC: I became interested in woodworking in 1999, so almost 13 years. My interest was born out of a need to build some custom furniture pieces to support a completely unrelated hobby, aquaria. Specifically, I needed to build some wide, deep cabinets to hold fish tanks, something I couldn't find in any store. I decided to build them myself. I found plans for a cabinet that would meet my requirements in a basic woodworking book published by Stanley. This introduced me to hand tools and from there it was a quick descent down the hand tool slope. At the time hand tools fit very well into my "shop" environment which consisted of a workbench in a corner of the living room in our townhouse condo.

When I became interested in woodworking much of the mainstream woodworking publications, TV shows, and Internet discussion was still focused on power tools. The rec.woodworking Usenet group was not a friendly place towards "Neanderthals". I came across the OldTools email list and found my new home. Today the environment is much different, perhaps even the polar opposite. Hand tools are very much in vogue  and many new woodworkers are starting off as handtool-only woodworkers. Today there is also much more information available for hand tool woodworkers, and many more hand tool makers creating quality tools.

TJA: What is your favorite style to work in? what styles do you just not understand or have no interest in?

JC: I'm not terribly creative or artistic. I don't carve well so I avoid the heavily carved/ornamented styles. I like straight lines and right angles. I like shaker style furniture and I aspire to learn enough to work in the federal style- string inlay is on my list of things to try one day. I do enjoy turning, both spindle and faceplate. I'm also very interested in "rustic" or green woodworking. I recently discovered some early Roy Underhill episodes which totally changed my outlook on woodworking and gave me a new appreciation for his style of work.

TJA: What tools do you always look forward to using and/or what operations do you most look forward to, time after time? 

JC:I have a few tools that I always look forward to using: My Lie-Nielsen 4 1/2 heavy smoother (aka the engagement plane) which is the finest handplane I've had the pleasure to use. I also enjoy using my Harvey Peace No. 60 crosscut saw, a rare saw I recently had restored. It's an amazing saw- easy to use and accurate enough to split a pencil line yet it tears through stock very fast. Finally, I think my favorite tool to use is my Varvill & Son plow plane. It's a prototypical late-1800s British screw-arm plow full of all sorts of unnecessary ornamentation and engineering and it performs superbly. It's one of those tools that you pick up and think it was made specifically for your hand.

As for what operations I look forward to- I enjoy cutting joints that require no glue or fasteners to hold them- draw-bored mortise and tenons, wedged through tenons, and dovetails have a sort of magical quality to me (when I cut them correctly!). I would swear that the wedged tenons in my saw bench couldn't be pulled apart by two tanks. It's an amazingly strong, yet simple joint.

TJA: How much time do you actually get in your shop in a typical week?

JC: I have a lot of responsibilities that eat into any potential shop time. Even so, I usually spend two or three nights a week in my shop, and a few lunch breaks as well. So, all told, I probably get 8-12 hours a week in my shop. Most of that time is spent cleaning and restoring tools that I will eventually sell, not working wood, unfortunately. I do have a couple of ongoing projects, including restoring an old joiner's toolchest, that I try to work on from time to time. Those few moments when I'm actually able to work wood for the sheer pleasure of it are incredibly valuable to me.

TJA: Have you had any memorable masters or mentors help you gain the skills you currently possess? How did you meet them?

JC: When I first became interested in hand tool woodworking I took some classes taught by Ian Kirby at a local Woodcraft. I wouldn't call him a mentor, but watching him work was certainly a learning experience. He showed me what a hand plane was capable of doing in the hands of a master woodworker. I also took classes with Garrett Hack and Mario Rodriguez, both of whose work I greatly admire and respect. Recently my main influences have been Christopher Schwarz (of course) and Roy Underhill. I admire Chris' dedication to both woodworking and tools, as well as the way he presents his topics. He's probably the most influential person in the woodworking industry today. Roy is.. just Roy.. I think he's the closest thing I have to a hero at this point in my life. I've spent a lot of time over the last five years or so trying to go back and watch as many old episodes of his as possible. The recent news from Popular Woodworking that the early seasons of The Woodwright's Shop will be re-released soon was just amazing. I can't wait to get my hands on them.

TJA: You focus on rescuing old tools and finding new homes for them, but you obviously know your way around actual woodworking as well. How much of your time goes into building things (or merely testing tools) and how much is dedicated only to the cataloging, researching, and restoring the old tools you find?

JC: These days I think at least 95% of my free time (i.e. time not spent working my day job, playing with my kids, or sleeping) is spent on my tool business, and tasks related to it, leaving less than 5% of my free time for personal things like woodworking or my other hobbies. Most of my time is spent responding to emails, fulfilling requests for specific tools, while preparing my next list of tools for sale. I do spend some of that business time restoring, tuning, and testing tools, all of which I enjoy a lot. Actually, I enjoy all aspects of the tools business immensely. I'm very lucky to be able to pay the bills while doing something I love.

TJA: Have you considered writing about tools? Your knowledge is literally encyclopedic.

JC: I like the idea of writing about tools but I'm not very confident in my writing ability. Writing is not something I excelled at in school. It wasn't until I resumed my college education later in life that I began to take writing seriously. Even though I constantly try to improve my writing I'm still not entirely comfortable writing for the public.

Having said that, I do have a blog on my website, as well as a number of old-tool related articles. A few months ago I wrote an article on the Harvey W. Peace Company for a local tool club's newsletter, which was my first "published" work. I have a long list of ideas for articles for my site. I just lack the time to execute them!

TJA: The book The Anarchists Tool Chest has sent hordes of readers looking for vintage tools in good shape. Have you felt these ripples in your business? Have you ever considered creating an entire collection of Joiners Tools to sell as one whole lot?

JC: I've felt more than a few ripples from the impact The Anarchists Tool Chest. The increase in business I have seen has been nothing short of amazing. That book has had an amazing impact in the level of interest in old tools in general. When the book was first published I had an initial surge in inquiries through my website. Actually, I first learned that Chris mentioned my business in this book when the first round of emails started coming in. Ever since then I've seen a steady and constant stream of new folks who heard about me from the book.

Putting together a "hand tool starter" kit is an idea I kicked around for a while but never decided to try. I see a few problems there- first, the cost of such a kit would be fairly high and would probably not appeal to someone who is just getting started in woodworking. There would also be some limiting factors in term of actually finding the tools. For example, I almost always have a good selection of chisels on-hand yet I always have a hard time finding decent jack planes for some reason. Another factor against this is the issue of personal preferences. If I put together a starter kit of joiner's tools each and every one of those tools has to appeal to the user's personal preference of size, vintage, maker, etc. It would be hard to put together one set of tools that would please everyone. Finally, the idea is sort of at odds with what I preach to new woodworkers. I frequently hear from folks who want to get started and have a list of tools they have to have before they can even start to think about working wood. My advice to them is to start with the basics- a chisel, saw, mallet, some measuring and marking tools, and make something. You can make a basic workbench with not much more than that. (I also disagree with the trend that a woodworker's first project should be an uber-workbench, but that's a another question) That way you start building skills and learning what tools you need as you go and as part of that process you are making things- that's the whole point, to make things. Then again, there are a lot of people for whom all the enjoyment comes from setting up a dream shop chock full of tools but never make anything. There's no harm in that at all- it's called collecting :)

TJA: What else you enjoy outside of woodworking/toolmongering and time with your family?

JC: I have way too many hobbies. I love to garden, both ornamental plants and vegetables. I like to cook, which fits in well with the gardening. I recently started brewing beer which is a lot of fun and something I want to pursue more seriously in the future. I love to read, but have no time to actually sit down with a book. Instead I listen to audiobooks while cleaning, photographing, and packing tools. My main interests are Sci-Fi (both good and bad) as well as fantasy and historical non-fiction. I'd love to learn more about blacksmithing but that project has been put on hold for a while. I also love cycling though these days I've been relegated to being a spectator on TV rather than out there riding. My oldest daughter is just old enough to start playing sports so I'm active in her t-ball and soccer teams. Oh, we heat our home with wood so that's sort of a hobby in and of itself and keeps me busy moving piles of wood around which is fun in its own way.

TJA: What is happening in the hand tool world (toolmakers, blogs, books,projects) that you think need more press?

JC: There's a lot of really interesting stuff going on in the hand tool world.. I think the past three or four years has seen the rebirth of the handsaw. There's an incredible amount of interest in saws- making, restoring, and collecting them. There are some great new saws on the market these days. There are also a number of talented new sawsmiths out there doing fantastic work getting old saws back into usable condition. As a result of all this interest, the market for good used saws has exploded. Because of this, finding decent saws (which was never easy) at reasonable prices is getting much harder. eBay isn't helping that much either. Don't get me started on eBay.

I think that after the Anarchist's tool chest, the book that had the most impact was Follansbee and Alexander's book on joint stools. I know I personally received a number requests for green woodworking tools like hewing hatchets from folks who read the book. I wish I had more to provide! The next big book I think will be Matt Bickford's book "Mouldings in Practice" It will be a first of its kind I think, describing not only how the planes work but gives step by step instructions on actually using them.  A lot of people think molding planes are too complicated or difficult to use, and they aren't. I think this book should help demystify these tools and should result in a surge in interest in them.

Aside from that, I'm eagerly looking forward to Popular Woodworking's making available the early seasons of The Woodwright's Shop. I think this will have a significant impact on anyone who sits down and watches the first complete first season. It's truly inspirational stuff and I predict it will have just as much impact as The Anarchist's Toolchest did on woodworking. I think we'll see a surge in interest in green woodworking, and a new appreciation for the tools involved in that sort of work.

TJA: Are you a dog person or a cat person? Does this reflect on your approach to tool collecting?

JC: My business name is the Hyperkitten Tool Company. Does that answer your question? The origin of the name is a long story, but I do have cats at home including the Hyperkitten herself (aka Gwen who, at nearly 13 years old, is no longer a kitten) as well as a rabbit and many fish. I like dogs, but they are too much work right now. I envision my son or youngest daughter someday convincing me to get a dog. Anyhow, I don't think it's had much of an affect on my woodworking, other than the fact that cats love to chase curly shavings around the shop.

TJA: Thank you, Joshua!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

JD's Box

It is difficult to word what a fantastic human J.D. Falk was, and I won't really try to do it here. He was a very close friend of the family, and I was incredibly honored to be asked to build his urn. 

It is is based on the School Box design I have been working with, but it has a couple differences. It is made entirely of lightly spalted curly maple, and lacks moulding. The top has a subtle live edge, with some hints of moss still attached. The bottom, instead of being nailed on, is a raised panel ("raised" downwards) floating in a groove. Inside the box, instead of a partition, is a tray made of Port Orford cedar, which could be used to store wedding rings, photos, and so on.

Building this box was a rich experience for me. Because of its special nature, I took absolutely no short cuts and tried at every turn to do the best work I am capable of. At the same time, as I was building it, I kept thinking about J.D. and life and death and family and friends and more. It helped cement my recent beliefs that woodworking (and by extension just about any craft) truly is a valid spiritual pursuit. The meditative quality of this project is difficult to adequately word, but it was very valuable time for me. The box is not perfect, but neither am I and neither was J.D. However, I feel great about being able to say that I did the best work I am capable of at this point.

I hope you like it J.D., I sure enjoyed making it for you.