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.


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

Jig Saw or how I stopped worrying and learned to love the reciprocation

The first, and only, experience I had with jig saws was using my dad’s vintage craftsman. 

Wholesale stolen from ebay.

It looked pretty much like the one above, but it had the additional “feature” of being able to “steer” the blade via a twisty handle at the top. It was loud, vibrated, and had the cut accuracy of the average user of public restrooms.  I hated using it. 

Fast forward 25 years and I was staring down needing to cut out a 12″ circle from 3″ thick poplar for my first staked furniture build.  I don’t have a capable bandsaw so my choices were rigging something up with a router or cutting it with a coping saw.  Neither was a great option for me (i have router phobia). 

I was wandering through the big box store and they happened to have a Bosch jigsaw on discount. Two minutes of in-store tool review searching and I picked up the JS470E and took it home. It stated on the box that it had 4″ hardwood cutting capacity, so I hoped that a a 33(.3333333…)% overcapacity would mean that it would actually work. I thought that I could at least get it close and then clean it up. It worked ao much better than I had expected. 

The saw easily handled the poplar and left a clean (and square) cut. Took less than 10 mins to zip out the blank above and that included clanping and unclamping from the workbench.  Technology has most certainly advanced in the last few years. 

Don’t fear freehanding a circle too. Draw your line and just cut. You can always fair it out with a plane and spokeshave later. Even with a bandsaw you’ll have to do something to clean up the saw marks. And your circle diesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough to fool the eye.  

Twisting in the Wind

The space between projects is always an interesting one. There’s a sense of disorientation, for me at least, and a little bit of loss.  When you’ve been focused on the provess and goal for a long time, being without that focus can be disorienting. Since finishing  the nail cabinet, I decided to work on some essential hand woodworking layout and reference tools to fill the gap between larger projects.  The first up was a short straight edge from a scrap of maple I had lying around from my moxon vise build. I decided to make a couple of thumbnail ends and an ogee-like shape at the top for a finger hold. 

I cut these with a coping saw and then used a couple of rasps to clean up the shape.  I have a nicholson rat-tail and a Narex half-round. Both of which work fine and aren’t that expensive. I did further cleanup with some metal files.  The endgrain of this maple responded really well to the file.  Since this straightedge is only 1/4 inch wide you would think a 1/2 chisel would be enough to clean up the long sides. However, I had the best luck with my 2 in wide chisel. I think it let me feel if I was tilting and it also let me skew cut along the length.  

After the profile was shaped, I cut a finger recess with a gouge.  This worked OK, but it wasn’t very straight or even.  I used a curved scraper to straigten and smooth the groove. This was super critical because I couldn’t cut the groove with the gouge without tearing out. Curved scrapers are awesome and can be made from straight scapers with some judicious grinding. 

The next item was some winding sticks. I made these from quartersawn sapele that I picked up at woodcraft.  Not a cheap way to do it, but I wanted some dark wood.   The sticks are frequently triangle shaped because, I think, they are cut from one piece of wood.  That’s how sellers approached his. My wood wasn’t thick enough to do that, so I cut it in half and the ripped the angle. 

I cleaned up the cut on my sticking board, which let me run an angled jointer over this thin stick of wood.  If you haven’t made a sticking board, do it. It’s an incredibly useful piece of kit.  

Then came the inlay of a couple of lighter wood strips. I chose some quartersawn maple for a  nice understated ray fleck.  I defined the inlay recess with marking knives and a cutting gauge and then cleaned out the recess with a sharp chisel. A small router plane might have helped a lot here.  At least made the process faster.  

The inlay material was again cut from the moxon leftovers and then planed down to about 3/32 or so just using my smoothing plane and the bench stop. It was kinda scary planing at the toothed hook with a very thin piece, but as long as you press down hard before planing forward the part stays put. I then glued it into the 1/16 in-deep inlay recess and planed it flush with my block plane after the glue dried. 

There are some gaps, but overall I am pretty stoked with my first inlay attempt. One down side was that the sapele warped a little after gluing. I think the water in the glue caused this and I am hoping it will die down over time. The warp is along the length and doesn’t appear to impair use. Just looks bad. 

This was a lot of fun and a nice exercise in precision planing. Highly recommended. 

The Bay

I have had a reasonable amout of success purchasing tools on ebay. While nothing beats getting to pick up a tool and look it over, being picky online can net you some pretty sweet tools. There will be misfires though. The starrett no92 in the picture below is a notable example. 

Starrett 92 on the left and its cheaper cousin the stanley 58 on the right.

I clearly saw that the spring on the micro adjust was missing, but I thought I could fix that easily. So I picked it up for just over $40.00 shipped.  What I didn’t see was that the quadrant rod was bent and the rod clamp had been seriously distorted. So now I own a nice-ish looking, non-locking compass/paperweight. 

So how do you avoid this? One way is to arm yourself with knowldege. Look at vintage catalogs so you know what parts should be there. There are a couple of sites with freely available scanned catalogs. The Alaskan Woodworker and Blackburn Tools both host many scans from the Rose Tool archive that is now gone from the web. Grab the catalog you want and learn what you’re looking for. This is most useful for planes and other complex tools.  Then arm yourself with a tolerance for dissappointment. You are going to buy some clunkers. Get used to it. 

If the thought of buying trash is distressing to you, then stick to the online sites devoted to user grade tools.  Hyperkitten Tools and Patrick Leach at The Superior Toolworks are two that I buy from and I have never been disappointed by either. 

Here are some other strategies that I have found helpful. If you want a desirable tool, look around at competing manufactuers. The stanley 58 above has 80% of the functionality as the Starrett 92, while routinely selling on ebay for 1/3 the cost.  If a company still makes the tool, it can be cheaper new than used, sometimes. This is particularly true of Starrett and Lie Nielsen. I have seen used versions of normal production tools of both manufacturers go for crazy high prices. Finally, if you see a tool that is going for way less than normal, chances are that there is something wrong with it and the more experienced buyers are staying away. Exceptions to rule include situations with mispellings and clear mislabelings.  

Legging up

After a brutal schedule of work and travel, I was finally able to get the legs mortised into the top blocks that I had surfaced up.  I wanted to make sure that I had a consistent 2 inch space between the blocks, so I cut a couple of spacers and then clamped the tops together.  I then set the assembled base on the top, aligned everything, and traced the tenons onto the tops.  No measurement and no stress.  One of the legs had a little bit of twist, maybe an 1/8, and that would have really messed stuff up if I had tried to gauge them all square.  My original plan was to have a larger overhang on the vise side so that I could mount the vise outside the left leg.  I forgot that everything is reversed when you’re upside down, so I ended up backward.

You can see me making the mistake in the image. I had a three minute huff session and then I decided to leave it.  Recutting the mortises would have put too many holes in the top and I still had to route out the groove for the sliding deadman.  I actually prefer the top setup this way from a visual balance standpoint.   It will probably make me want to install a leg vise sooner as well.  The Benchcrafted siren call is strong…

I cut the legs to length using a handsaw.  I scribed around the legs at the required length with a marking knife and then worked my way around three sides, kerfing in the cut.  Once I had a solid 1/8 – 1/2 kerfed in, I dove into the cut.  This worked really, really well.  I was able to cut right up to my knife line and left one half of it on the leg.


Learning that I needed to put a starter kerf in place to guide accurate, 1st class sawing was one of the most important lessons I took away from reading “The Essential Woodworker,” by Wearing.  All that’s left is to install the vise and add some finishing details.