Workable Tools and Holy Grails

I recently pulled the trigger on a new brace, picking up a Stanley 2101A in addition to my “hold all” brace that I have had for about a year. There wasn’t anything wrong with the holdall, it’s a great brace and I’ve built two nice stools with it. But the 2101 sits in a class of tools I call “grails.”

Most of these holy relics have been given grail status by being blessed by Christopher Schwarz (see, for example, the miller falls 42 and the stanley 47 bit gauge).  I have yet to purchase a tool that Schwarz has recommended and been disappointed, so historically he’s been spot on.  I do wonder, however, if I am also falling prey to the recent (maybe?) societal need to buy the “best” version of a product to show people that you’re in the know.  Ignoring the meta angst of this post, I do love the ratchet and chuck mechanism on the new brace.  The plastic handles, not so much.

There’s a weird anxiety of having a tool you know is fine and works for you, while simultaneously knowing that there is something out there that is considered to be better. I love my Stanley type 11 smoothing plane and jack plane, but part of me wonders if I love them because they’re considered to be one of the best versions of that plane made by Stanley.  Is it because they actually work better than a type 17 or 18?  Probably not. At least at my skill level, probably not.  I’m also not implying that The Schwarz, or any other respected reviewer of tools, generates this anxiety.  I believe that it’s symptomatic of the level of choice that’s available to me, an American living in the 2010s with access to the internet.  I now have a significant amount of societal pressure to spend inordinate amounts of time researching every purchase so that I don’t appear foolish to the rest of my peer group.  Yay modernity.

Depsite of (inspite of?) this, there is a definite joy in something that is useful and beautifully made.  It’s part of the reason I hunt the grail tools when I can.  For example, the  dividers below do the same thing, almost equally well.  One I just use (flat bladed) and the others actually make me happy when I use them.  Which is pretty shallow, but why waste your time doing something that you enjoy with tools that don’t make you happy, even if they work well.

Stock Purchase

For me, the scariest part of building a chair, or stool in this case, was choosing the leg stock. Watching you tube, TV, or the internet told me that I was going to have to rive some wood to make sure that I didn’t have weak legs. That’s a challenging prospect for an urban woodworker.  Logs are hard to come by and sourcing appropriate wood to rive is difficult, to say the least.  Where I live there are a couple of hardwood stores in town, but they tend not to stock a lot of material, preferring to order as the customer needs it. Which leaves me combing the small lumber racks at woodcraft most of the time.  Kinda sad.  Even though, I’ve had pretty good success with this approach and was able to score enough stock for a couple of 3-legged stools.

I thought I’d just show a few pictures of what I looked for in the leg stock.   I was following some suggestions made by Brendan Gaffney of burnHeart Made about how he approached choosing stock for his tools.  After I started this post, he posted a fantastic informational video on what he looks for.

I pretty much followed his advice, looking for nearly perfectly flatsawn growth rings on the end as shown below.

As flatsawn as I could find.  Yes, tassel loafers are admissible shop wear.

Then I went to the side of the board and tried to make sure that the grain didn’t run out. This is about as good as I could get in the 8/4 stock that was available. There is a little run out at the end, but if you put that toward the floor then you should be safe (I know that might seem counter intuitive, but the highest stresses are at the top of the leg).


So while I couldn’t get riven stock for this build, I was able to get some leg stock that I feel comfortable sitting on. The hardest part was getting a good look at how the grain ran along the length of the board. The rough-sawn texture makes the grain hard to see and so you have to spend a bit of time angling it around in the light before it reveals itself.  The other option I had thought of involved finding 12/4 stock and just trying to rive the oak dry.  I am pretty certain that would be at least moderately successful.

Laying out the seat

Apparently the stool is on everyone’s list at the moment.  I like it because it is a sorta halfway point between a chair and, well, nothing.  Sitting on the ground?  Maybe.  Plus there are only three legs, so I only have to worry about one drilling angle once I laid out the mortise locations. To locate the leg positions, I played with the wireform model I put up a couple of posts earlier and decided on a 4 inch diameter leg circle on a 12 inch seat.   The next thing to do was to lay out an equilateral triangle on the seat bottom so I could get the legs equidistant from one another.  Just a little bit of simple geometry  construction was all it took.

I have some pictures of me constructing that triangle that I will post a little later.  Good old high-school geometry reminders from the teacher in me. After laying this out, I drilled the 5/8 in holes with a wood owl bit and an 8 inch brace with a holdall chuck.   On instagram I joked that the leg layout lines looked like the cover of a metal album, it definitely has that archaic magic symbol look to it. For this stool seat, I beveled the underside with a jack plane and then cleaned up the bevel with a new, to me, stanley M151.  I fell in love with the spokeshave almost immediately.  Get the thing sharp and it is a blast to use.  It’s definitely an ongoing lesson in reading grain though.  The spokeshave is like the chisel in that regard.


After I beveled the underside, I reamed the 5/8 holes with the large veritas reamer, checking my leg angle as I went.  You don’t have to have a fancy sliding bevel like the Blue Spruce Toolworks one below, but man, it makes it nicer.  Everything I have ever picked up from David’s company has been ultra nice and super functional.  You can see my 16 oz Blue Spruce mallet in the background of this photo, which is acrylic infused and indestructible.  After this step, I started in on shaping the legs.

Pye and The Internet

I recently read David Pye’s book The Nature and Art of Workmanship.  I was introduced to this book through the frequent quoting of his catchphrase “the craftsmanship of risk,” which he uses to differentiate craftsman-made work from mass production. It’s an interesting read and is still relevant almost 50 years later. I found Pye’s book focused on developing a working definition of craft and individual workmanship that is focused on the refutation of definitions of craft that Morris and Ruskin  (particularly Ruskin), of the English Arts and Crafts movement, put forth. Academic invective is probably an appropriate description of his tone.

However, his final chapter is interesting in that it makes suggestions and predictions about individual craft in the future. The  four points in the final chapter are interesting and are still relevant today. Particularly point 1)

The workmanship of certainty has not yet found out, except in certain restricted fields, how to produce diversity and exploit it

I had never seen these before and these last 4 points he makes are far more important, in my opinion, than the notion of the “workmanship of risk”.  Some 50 years ago, Pye had already identified the problem that rapid  protyping and 3D printing is trying to solve. By designing in the virtual space (computers or CAD), you can marry the workmanship of certainty  to the diversity associted with the workmanship of risk. Now, this is far from perfect, anyone who has used a makerbot or similar home system knows that any given print is far from certain, but if you’ve had access to expensive production machines the world is different. Those machines just work. Almost without fail. Assuming you have some skill in designing items that work for printing.

This is all rosy and optimistic, especially since 3D printing is pretty limited in size and scope at this point. But the basic idea is there, great diversity is achievable within the framework of certainty.  Even if it is only doll furniture.

Image from

Engineering Staked Furniture

After reading the Anarchist’s Design Book, I decided to make a three-legged stool as my first piece of staked furniture.  I made a quick sketch of the stool and a model to help guide my leg angles and placements.  Based on the model, I found a leg angle of 21 degrees to look nice, to me at least.

I’m an engineer and the things that I wondered was how much does the angle change the loads on the legs and how close was I to the failure point of the leg.  I googled around a little and didn’t find any clear guidance on the analysis of the legs of a chair, so I decided to go ahead and do it myself.

Like all good engineering problems, you start with a free-body-diagram (FBD).  This drawing catalogs all the forces acting on the leg and serves as the roadmap for an analysis. The thing we are most interested in is the moment at the point the legleg_forces enters into the seat M_s.  We need to make some assumptions to figure this out.  The first assumption is that the force on the leg due to the person sitting on it is distributed evenly.  That means

F_s = \frac{W}{N}

or the weight of the person W is divided by the number of legs N. We also assume that the friction between the leg and the floor is zero, so f_f=0 in the FBD to the left.  Now we can sum up the forces and solve for the moments which gives us

 M_s = \frac{W}{N}\left(\frac{h}{\cos\theta}\right)\sin\theta

F_f = F_s = \frac{W}{N}

This means that the moment at the leg mortise varies in a mostly linear way as the angle of the leg changes, assuming that the seat height remains fixed.  The graph below demonstrates that relationship.

Moment at the seat for h=19 in.

While this is important, what we are really after is the stress in the leg.  Stress is simply the force in the leg divided by the cross-sectional area of the leg.  It is important because we can compare the calculated stress level to measurements made on representative wood specimens.  If our stresses in the leg are below the measured maximum stresses in the samples, then we can be sure that the leg won’t fail. Assuming our force analysis is correct.  When we do the stress analysis we get the following relationship, where \sigma is the stress in the leg

 \sigma_{tensile} = \frac{W}{N}\left(\frac{2h}{\pi r^3}\tan\theta-\frac{1}{\pi r^2}\cos\theta\right)

For the equation above, I’ve made the assumption that the leg is circular at the mortise, which is a pretty good assumption. When we do the same study as in the plot above and ask what the stress in the leg is for a given angle and a fixed seat height we get

Stress at the leg mortise for h=19 in, r=1.125 in

From this plot I can see that my leg stress is approximately 1700 psi.  That’s actually not much and when you compare that stress level to measured failure stresses in typical leg woods we see that we have a lot of leeway

Species Modulus of Rupture (psi)
White Oak 18,400
Red Oak 18,100
Ash 15,000
Hard Maple 15,800
Hickory 20,200

Most of these woods have failure stresses 10 times higher than the stresses we see in the legs.  This is great and likely contributes to the longevity of the samples that Chris talks about in the book.

The next question is leg length.  I am currently making a stool that is about normal seat height, but will be making a counter height stool (23/24 inches) as the next one.  Modeling that seat gave me a leg angle of 17 degrees, which also happens to be the angle Mike Dunbar suggests in his stool article here.  The plot below shows the leg stresses for a range of seat heights from 17 to 27 inches for that 17 degree leg angle

Mortise stress for a 17 degree leg that is 1.125 in in diameter.

Again, the results are good. For a standard 1.125 inch diameter mortise, the stresses are about 2000 psi. That gives me lots of head room without changing any of the mortise dimensions. If you want some more details about how I got these equations, check out this little document I put together chair_forces.

DISCLAIMER – this is a pretty “back of the envelope” calc and may have some errors. Use at you own risk.

The Anxiety of Tool Care

Many of the tools I own and use are more than twice as old as I am. This actually produces a sense of anxiety about how I treat the tools and how well I care for them.  When you become, essentially, a keeper of the tool for the next generation, your relationship to these things change.  This bleeds over into my other, less provenanced, tools as well.

Take my set of 1990’s marples chisels for example. These were the bad-ass Dodge Stratus of the time and the entry-level chisel of every woodworker I know. And they’re still great. But my dog got ahold of the 3/4 chisel while I was sharpening one day and chewed the end. Thankfully no one was hurt, but the handle was mangled.

Did this change how this chisels worked? No way. But it changed how I felt about it.  The handle stared back at me from my tool chest and kept saying “fix me.”  So I finally did.  I have made one chisel handle replacement before for a long paring chisel that was just a simple hexagon.  For this handle,  I decided to make a modified london pattern handle .  There are a number of tutorials on making these handles on the wb (see here, here, and here, for example).

The basic procedure is pretty simple.  Take a block of wood, ash in my case, and plane (or saw) into an octagon.  Chuck this into a lathe and turn the curvy parts.  Drill a tang hole and pound the handle home.  For this handle I picked up a ferrule from Ron Bontz at Bontz Saw Works because they are nice looking and I wanted something other than the copper pipe cutoffs that are the standard for the typical handle replacement.

I am pretty happy with how it turned out.  The handle is a little tilted, but I was happy with the outcome from me free-handing it with the tange hole. When you put the handle on, try to line up one of the flats of the octagon with the plane of the blade.  It makes it easier to register when you pick it up.   I finished it with a little shellac and it’s now ready for another 20 years of work.