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Workbench Wednesday – Romastonian Bench 1

In my quest to build a low bench, a/k/a a woodworking-while-sitting-on-my-keister-is-more-attractive-with-age bench, I am embarking on making a mélange of the Roman Workbench, the Estonian Workbench, and the Jonathan Fisher Workbench, with the occasional influence of Nicholson with a couple added features thrown in.  Rather than rearranging and sorting through the log barn to pull out a timber of just the right cross-section I decided to repurpose my old planing beam that had become obsolete once the FORP bench was completed and installed.  Not needing an 8″ x 10″ x 8′ shelf in the shop, it was a fairly easy conclusion to reach.

Much to my surprise the beam had become considerably heavier in the decade since it was installed, or was it the maker who became weaker?  I’ve got a rolling table that I maneuvered into the shop to make the transport out to the large space a piece of cake.  I placed the beam on two sawhorse and reached for my 10″ Milwaukee circular saw.  (It’s times like these that I revel in having made that particular purchase 20+ years ago.)  Making two passes on each side I was left with about an inch to saw by hand, and viola’ I would soon have a pair of ~5″ x 8″ x 96″ timbers.

Objects of Inspiration

I am not a tool collector.

To be sure I have a lot of tools, perhaps (probably) even to excess as there are many tools of which I have multiple representations.  Some of this is a result of having tool sets in several different places, for example the workshop in the basement of my daughter’s house, the video studio up on the fourth floor of the barn, and my own workshop on the second floor, etc.

In addition I have a number of tools that are slight variations of each other; what other explanation is there for my inventory of more than a dozen toothing planes?

I recall vividly a conversation between Mrs. Barn and Robin Lee of Lee Valley Tools Tools during the set-up of a Handworks event, where the full panoply of the Veritas offerings was on proud display.

Mystified by the range of hand planes on display, she asked him, “How many planes do you really need?”

Robin’s reply was, “How many are there?”

Another reason (excuse?) for having too many tools is that I have upgraded a particular tool for a slightly better version of the same thing but failing to dispense with the previous one.  That might explain my owning at least a half dozen shooting planes.

Yet another reason for having excess tools is my affinity for designing and making tools that would be, by definition, unique as my personal creations.

Nevertheless I can state unironically I am not a tool collector since I do not have any tools for the mere purpose of possessing them for whatever reason.  I cannot think of a single tool in my possession that I would not use in the shop.  Some do not get used frequently, nevertheless I own them for the purpose of working the materials in my milieu.

I do have a few tools that are of “collectible” stature, most notably a near-pristine c.1800 Robert Towell miter/shooting plane.   I could afford it only because Towell was lackadaisical about stamping his work and even though this is almost certainly one of his it is not stamped.  Thus, its purchase price was only 10% of what it would have been otherwise.

I also have a couple of small Art Nouveau-ish tools by contemporary jeweler/sculptor Chris Laarman’s that are simply lovely to my eye and hand.

My set of “whale” luthier’s finger planes and a whimsical pair of “pig’s ear” user-made spokeshaves are a pleasure to all the relevant senses, including my sense of well-being and my sense of satisfaction and contentment in the shop.

These tools are Objects of Inspiration as I live out and move forward with my own creativity.  In particular I am orienting increasingly toward the world of tool making, not necessarily “wooden thing” making.  In coming weeks, months, and years creative metalwork will become an ever greater emphasis of my own work especially in the world of “precious,” purely indulgent tool forms starting with these unfinished models for two finger planes that have been in the drawer since I first designed them fifteen years ago.

A First, Tantalizing Clue

Studley’s front vise

Over the past decade I have looked at dozens of piano makers’ vises similar to the ones H.O. Studley had on his workbench.  Even at this very moment there are five in the barn.  The head-scratching part about them revolves around two questions; 1) what were the processes of piano making that required such a remarkable vise, and 2) why are there no makers’ identifications on any of them?  Given the time in which these vises were made, late 19th and early 20th Century, when manufacturers were stamping their names on everything that could be marked, this absence of identification was mystifying.

This week I got a picture from a friend, who had a friend who just bought a piano makers vise, and lo and behold there is a maker’s stamp right in the middle of the moving jaw, front and center.

Very exciting indeed.

Gragg Tool Addendum – Castagno Spokeshaves

In my recent post about small high-quality brass spokeshaves I remarked that they were 1) indispensable for making Gragg chairs (and any other voluptuous forms), and 2) increasingly difficult to find.  In response to that post I was contacted by Hayden Castagno, a Krenov school alumnus who has embarked on a new enterprise of making tools.  After a bit of back-and-forth correspondence I became increasingly intrigued by his new miniature brass spokeshaves and purchased a set, full price.

Like me, Hayden is drawn not only to making things but making the tools used in making things.  This theme will become even more prominent in my own work and this blog in the coming weeks and months.  When I asked him about his creative process he replied, in truly Krenovian fashion:

To me, there is far more to toolmaking (or any craftsmanship, for that matter) than any romantic viewpoint would suggest, but it is in some sense a window to the depth that these topics contain.

I find a life force in wood. I am given energy by making a device that can—with the trust in experienced hands—pull out that life force to be used as a message. Wood offers itself when it is shown a combination of disciplined craftsmanship and good tools. For me, there is great satisfaction in making that good tool and forming a friendship with the craftsperson.


My dad was a welding and manufacturing professor before he started a custom fabrication shop. I essentially grew up inside the shop, learning all the steps of design and manufacturing, and becoming skilled with machines. I was most attracted to what I learned about sculpting and bonding metals by hand. Amongst them, silver-brazing is the favorite.

One of the most impactful experiences that led to my interest in toolmaking was the time …  [meeting] toolmakers like Ron Hock, Yeung Chan, and Kevin Glen Drake. That is also where I became aware of tools that aren’t made any more, or are difficult to find.

This leads to the more specific topic of how I recreated the miniature brass spokeshaves. I thought of casting, but I wanted to produce something more hand-made and unique: something of my own design. So, I cut three separate pieces from a sheet of brass and silver-braze the layers by hand. The shaping of the bottoms is done also by hand. I then use chemical polishing techniques to give the shaves the desired shine. Every step is performed by myself at the moment.

While I am not enticed by packaging I recognize that these are nicely packaged and presented, but even more important is that they are fully sharpened and ready to use right out of the box!  Well, they do need to have the blades set-up, they are retracted into the body for shipping.  There is a definite “feel” aspect to setting blades on such a tiny, simple tool.  I learned this 45 years ago in the pattern shop where we used similar tools for both hogging off stock and feathering contours.  My approach is to loosen the screw, press the blade in or out until I can feel the purchase, tighten the screw lightly enough so it does not fall out and then address the edge to the workpiece.  If I have it where I want it I tighten down on the screw to lock the blade, if not I adjust it until it is.  Given the low mass of the tool it is critical to get the set-up just right or you will get chatter out the wazoo and the spokeshave will literally jump out of your grip.

One difference with this tool is immediately apparent when picking it up and using it: it was made by someone who knows how the tool is used and it fits into the hands of a human being.  The same cannot be said for some other tools of the same general category.  Especially in the shape, configuration, angle, and size of the handles it is a keeper.  Clearly this was designed by someone who actually used it.

I gave all three a good test drive on a curved Gragg arm element and was so pleased I was sorry that I did not have a pile of them to work on right away.  While they will not become my sole spokeshaves for a Gragg project, dispatching my “lamb’s ear” spokeshaves or the one I made in the foundry in 1978 are not in the cards, I can definitely say that they will be right alongside them to pick up and use at a moment’s notice.

My only “criticism” of the tools after a bit of use is that they are finished too crisply.  The edges and the corners are a little too clean for me and I found that I was taking needle files to some of the places where my grip pressed hard enough to leave creased indentations on my fingertips.  This is hardly a condemnation as I consider almost every tool that comes into the shop to be a kit and I modify them as needed.  You, too may find that the tool needs some miniscule sculpting to fit your individual fingers as well.  It is perhaps churlish to note that a semi-custom tool is “too well finished.”

If you are unable to find high-quality miniature brass spokeshaves for your work, Castagno’s just might be the perfect solution for you.

In closing let me say that Hayden’s spokeshaves reinforce my contention that we are living in the Golden Age of Tools.  Never before have so many high-quality tools been available and affordable to earnest woodworkers, vocational or avocational.

I look forward to see what he has in his menu of future developments.


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Shiny vs. Finished

As my Year of Metalworking unfolds I am drawing on lessons from my far distant past.  About forty years ago I started a stint working with Don Heller, Silver Objects Conservator at Winterthur Museum.  A gruff, curmudgeonly fellow with a heart of gold, Don spent a lifetime as a traditional silversmith before coming to the museum.  While most of his job was caring for the stupendous collection of silver artifacts in the museum, a much smaller component was teaching the graduate students of the University of Delaware Art Conservation Graduate Program (I was the first recipient of the undergraduate degree from the same program).  Don was constantly vexed by a student or two who only wanted their projects to be, “shiny, not finished.”  By this he meant that they wanted to short-cut the process instead of working systematically through the time honored practices of moving deliberately through the steps of getting from Point A to Finished.  Instead they would simply make it “shiny” while leaving behind all the marks of the intervening processes, marks that needed to be removed in order for it to be “finished.”

I am once again reviving those lessons from Don in working the shell castings for the Studleyesque infill mallet heads.  When they arrive the side surfaces have been cleaned of their cast texture, but that is just the starting point for me.  (NB – My assessment of Studely’s original is that the surface is essentially straight from the sand mold, lightly cleaned.  Whoever cast the shell was a genius.)

Harkening back to Don’s instructions I step through ever finer abrasive papers to get to the point I want.  I do this by first using 80 grit working perpendicular to the pattern left by Bill Martley in his cleaning of the original casting.  When I get to the point that none of the original “direction” from Bill is evident I can move to the next step with a finer abrasive.

Then I switch to 150-grit paper, working perpendicular to my 80-grit pattern until all the 80-grit markings are eradicated.

Then 220-grit, perpendicular to the 150-grit until all the 150-grit tracks are gone.

Then 320-grit.

Then 400-grit.

Then 600-grit.  And all the evidence of the previous steps has been eradicated, but that absence is proof of their being executed.  Finished, not Shiny.

At this point the surface is ready for my final treatment of it.