Some time last year I was contacted by the ancient book caretakers of the Library of Congress (LC) to inquire about some in-house training they needed in woodworking. Yes, that’s right, ancient book caretakers needed to know about woodworking. Actually I knew that because many, many years ago I had helped a colleague in the same department with a project having to do with very large format book (about the size of a Roubo original edition) that was having problems with its bookboards, or cover boards, which were made of oak. You see, the the world of old books, especially those from about 1500 and older, wooden book covers are simply part of the equation. While the specialists at LC were expert in the care of the paper contents, and their bindings, they were a bit hazy on the details and practices of fashioning the wooden boards.
Having participated in a number of collaborations with LC over my career, they asked if I could come and teach them. Of course the answer was “Yes” and we began the Dance of the Conflicting Calendars. Combined with the political brinkmanship that is endemic to Mordor on the Potomac it took many months for the training to occur last month. One of the items looming overhead was the sub rosa blustering about “shutting the government down” to accomplish some partisan goal or another. (My own attitude on that matter as a skeptical non-partisan Strict Constructionist Declarationist I wished the government would shut down, or at least retreat to its Constitutionally mandated activities, which by my count means elimination of ~90% of FedCo.)
The goal of the two-day session was to impart the knowledge and implant the muscle memory so that each member of the ancient book posse could fabricate a technically faithful book model as a practice exercise in preparation for the next time one of the ancient wooden board books needed re-binding.
So, on a bitter cold and blustery February morning I pulled up to the doors of the elegant LC Jefferson building, my CRV filled to the brim with tools and materials for them to use under my tutelage. In a caravan of carts all of these were wheeled down to the book conservation space underneath the Madison Building across the street, and I set up shop.
Only one of the crew had experience in woodworking (the fellow using the bow saw in the picture below) so I needed to start at Point Zero to review the nature of wood, tools, and the processes used in planing, sawing, etc. I brought plenty of 5/4 white oak to work with, and we got down to bidnez.
The first assignment was for everyone to use the bench bench hooks I made for them to saw a single piece to the size they needed for their book model’s boards.
Then came the flattening of one face of that board to provide a reference surface for the resawing. Given the human scale involved (this crowd was for the most part more petite than a typical woodworking gathering) they were particularly pleased with #4 planes, which are too small for my routine use.
With the flat reference face completed, next came the resawing. I’d made a Fidgen-style kerfing plane to leave with them, and they took to it like me and bacon. The final product was to be a 1/4″ thick book board, so I made the kerfing plane to create a 3/8″ thickness.
One of the more serious challenges for the exercise is that as a book conservation unit they were not well equipped for woodworking in the bench category. Their only bench was an ancient and wobbly Sjoberg hobby bench.
I have one exactly like it that I got out of the trash many years ago. Frankly if I had to use one like this every day it would end in the trash too. I completely remade mine, mounted it on some 4″ slippers to get it to a decent working height, and screwed the entire thing to the floor, resulting in a very nice and oft-used work station. Mine is currently ensconced in the corner, perhaps not coincidentally closest to the propane furnace, and is dedicated to the finer work of decorative objects conservation, gunsmithing, etc.
I will do my best to address their lack of a decent workbench, hoping to make and donate a mini-Roubo in the coming months. But for now, all we had was a wobbly little bench and some mobile work tables.
Then the resawing began with a variety of saws, and thus endeth Day One.
My next step in the Great Kerfing Plane Saga was to go where I think kerfing plane evangelist Tom Fidgen started – kerfing planes with a fixed fence to produce a set width to the cut. My most typical use of resawing by hand is making hand-sawn veneers, so I decided to make my first kerfing plane part of that equation. Since I am not yet as skilled at veneer sawing as the craftsmen in the 18th century Parisian ateliers, who routinely harvested twelve sheets of veneer per inch of stock, I struck a more realistic task of cutting eight per inch. Thus, my need was for a dedicated kerfing plane set to 1/8″.
Falling back on my old habits and routine, I made the body of my plane from 13mm baltic birch plywood. I had first made a pattern for the tool, one I could use repeatedly. I derived the pattern template from a backsaw, which I traced onto 3mm plywood and cut out. The template now hangs overhead off a joist in the shop, awaiting for new kerfsaw-making urges to strike.
I traced the new kerf saw pattern on the thicker plywood, and drilled out holes where they would make the sawing the most amenable. I accomplished this with my coping saw in a couple minutes. Once I was done with the sawing I worked on the profiles of the handle with rasps and files so that it was comfortable in my hand.
I made a 3mm rectangle to be glued to the heavier plywood to provide for the cutting spacing.
The assembling continued apace with another scrap of bowsaw blade and a piece of scrap brass barstock to serve the retaining element to hold it all together.
The completed tool is a delightful amalgam of lightness with robustness for vigorous use, combined with comfort and precision for repeated cutting of veneer.
The test drive was perfect!
I followed up on this kerfing plane with one for some teaching I had upcoming, where the ultimate objective was to derive prepared oak boards of 1/4″ thickness from 5/4 stock. In this case I made the fixed cutting distance 3/8″ since this was the closest scrap I had handy, and in recognition that the folks I would be teaching had no woodworking experience and a bit extra waste would be advantageous. I will soon recount that tale, confirming the tool removed a huge potential hurdle to them completing their assignment and future task.
Thanks again Tom Fidgen for leading me down this path of simplicity for the sake of precision and efficiency.
With the initial endeavor into making a Tom Fidgen-ish kerfing plan resulting in a functional tool, I needed one last step to make it worth keeping on the shelf. Since the body of the plow plan was so short, the tool had a tendency to try to flip forward as I was using it aggressively. So, I fashioned a handle for it based on tracing one of my favorite hand saw handles.
Like a lot of things I make in my shop, especially when prototyping, the handle was from a scrap piece of wood from the scrap box, cut with a coping saw and in this case simply glued to the body of the plane with yellow glue since I did not want to whip up a new jar of hot hide glue just for this.
I got the orientation of the handle a little high, angle-wise, but it lengthened the profile of the plane so that I could really get to it. With a new blade in its proper orientation (not pictured) it works like a charm and sits in a handy place right over the planing beam.
It was a great introduction to the tool and I thank Tom Fidgen for introducing it to me. The plow plane starting point was a good one for me, but the final result was a bit clunky in my hand even thought it preformed exceedingly well.
But I wasn’t done yet.
With the encouragement of Tom Fidgen’s presentations at WIA and elsewhere I decided to make an attempt at a kerfing plane. His enthusiasm and evangelism for this tool has once again revitalized an older form from days of yore and integrates it into our toolboxes now. Huzzahs, Tom!
This tool from Roubo pretty much validates the utility of the tool. Being a smart guy like Roubo, Tom re-devised a tool without the knowledge of the master’s work from 2-1/2 centuries ago. Fidgen & Roubo — creative geniuses separated by 250 years.
Since the iron and especially the skate of the plow plane serves an analogous function as the blade of a kerfing plane, cannibalizing a decrepit one from my junk drawer seemed to be the right place to start. I’d already added new arms and fittings for the fence at some point the misty past.
I removed the skate and found a near perfect bed to affix a rip saw blade section.
Using a piece from a bow saw blade I bought at Highland Hardware and cut with metal snips and a scrap of brass stock from the scrap drawer I charged forward. (Actually I mighta charged a little too fast; I fited and drilled the blade and retaining bar with the blade running in the wrong direction. Sigh. Still it worked surprisingly well, but in the end I made a new blade and bar.)
The assembly was pretty straightforward, although drilling through the saw blade was a bit of an adventure.
It was time to give this cobbled-together tool a test drive. Magnifique!
But I was not done yet.
Jim Moon has informed me that he is bringing his remarkable replica of the H.O. Studley Tool cabinet to Handworks in Amana IA. The ensemble will probably be exhibited in the Amana Furniture Shop near the booths of SAPFM, Mary May, and Mike Siemsen. It’s a great location, allowing for much greater access by the attendees and greater safety and security for the collection.
As if you didn’t need any more reasons to attend the best tool event on earth.
When I first learned about Tom Fidgen’s kerfing plane I stored it away in the memory bank, realizing immediately that it was just the tool to make resawing an easier undertaking.
Since I do a fair bit of hand-resawing with my vintage carpenter’s saws and my pair of c.1800 4-foot frame saws and their little brother I made a few years ago it was a natural fit for my work bench activities.
It took me a couple years to actually get down to making some kerfing planes for myself. My starting point was this derelict partial plow plane that was probably in a box of tools I picked up somewhere along the line. I had added some new arms for the fence as I thought about making the plow plane usable, but since I didn’t really need another plow plane I eventually just let the carcass languish in my spare tool bin.
When looking at Tom’s kerfing plane I thought this plow plane body just might be the starting material for a try at cobbling one together myself, just to see if it really was a useful as Tom said it was and I hoped it might be. If so, I would concentrate on making some good ones to integrate into my work in The Barn.
Stay tuned as I take you down the path of creating a new, useful addition to my tool set from something probably destined for the wood stove. And, where I went from there. Thanks to Tom’s insights, creativity, and evangelistic fervor he has transformed part of my work.
Here is the full slate of activities.
May 23-27 Making a Ripple Molding Cutter – this is less of a workshop than a week long gathering of fellow galoots trying to design and build a machine to allow us to recreate ripple and wave moldings. Material and supplies costs divvied up, no tuition.
June 16-18 Make a Nested Set of Brass Roubo Squares – This is a weekend of metal working, as we fabricate a full set of nested brass squares with ogee tips, as illustrated in Plate 308 of l’art du Menuisier. The emphasis will be entirely on metal fabrication and finishing, including silver soldering with jeweler Lydia Fast, and creating a soldering station for the workbench. Tuition $375, materials cost $50.
July 24-28 Minimalist Woodworking with Vic Tesolin – This week long session with author and woodworking minimalist Vic Tesolin will begin with the fabrication, entirely by hand, of a Japanese tool box. Who knows where we will end up? I am looking forward to having my own work transformed. Tuition $625, materials cost $50.
August 11-13 Historic Finishing – My own long-time favorite, we will spend three days reflecting on, and enacting, my “Six Rules For Perfect Finishing” in the historic tradition of spirit and wax coatings. Each participant should bring a small finishing project with them, and will accompany that project with creating numerous sample boards to keep in your personal collections. Tuition $375.
September 4-8 Build An Heirloom Workbench – I’m repeating the popular and successful week-long event from last year, wherein the participants will fashion a Roubo-style workbench from laminated southern yellow pine. Every participant will leave at the end with a completed bench, ready to be put to work as soon as you get home and find three friends to help you move it into the shop. Tuition and Materials $825 total.
Since some recent research revealed the attention span of Americans to be eight seconds, I’ll re-run this periodically.
If any of these interest you drop me a line here.
For me the great honor at Working Wood in the 18th Century was being asked to serve as the after dinner speaker. Kaare had asked me to work with the topic “sometimes the old ways are the best ways” to which I gladly complied. Of course I provided my own peculiar spin on the topic, but everyone seemed to laugh in all the right places so I guess it went well.
Of course the highlight of the evening was the scrumptious chocolate cheesecake awaiting me at my place on completion of the chat.
I got a lot of very positive feedback on the talk, and was even asked to summarize part of it as an article in next year’s American Period Furniture. That section of greatest interest was a list of ten “assignments” I gave to the audience to stretch their handworking boundaries. For some in the audience, perhaps even most, this was simple encouragement and validation, for others it was a legitimate challenge.
I will blog about each of those assignments individually over the next fortnight or so, but here is the list:
- Restore an old tool to wondrous functionality
- Make a new tool and incorporate it into your bench work
- Learn to sharpen. Really. Everything
- Incorporate one (then all) of these traditional tools into your work — spokeshave, drawknife, scratch stock, toothing plane, froe
- Saw and prepare veneers by hand
- Learn to prepare, modify, and manipulate and use hot hide glue. Then use it.
- Execute a decorative painted surface
- Make from scratch, from stock you prepare yourself, one of the following — parquetry, floral marquetry, Boulle-work, a Federal paterae
- Prepare a surface without the benefit of sandpaper, then apply a finish not using a spray gun, polyurinate, or cellulose nitrate
- Make a piece of furniture entirely without power tools, beginning with a piece of firewood or similar
In my hands this morning…
I am not displeased.
Although I have attended the Colonial Williamsburg Working Wood in the 18th Century conference many times, this year was my first as a speaker. I was asked to present the topic “Wax Finishes” which I did. Alas, my time slot was only 45 minutes, which in retrospect pretty much everyone agreed was too short by some logarithmic value. Still I did my best to rip through the basics at breakneck speed.
As with virtually every finishing talk I give I began by covering my “Six Rules for Perfect Finishing.”
I then blew through the topics of surface prep with a scraper and then a polissoir. Truly this step has revolutionized my understanding and practice for finishing.
Then came the application of block beeswax as a grain filler and final finish, worked into the surface via vigorous rubbing with the polissoir, followed by scraping to remove any excess, and finally by buffing with a flannel.
I showed, all too quickly, the incorporation of both resin flour and powdered colorants to the beeswax grain fillers to impart either hardness or coloration.
Finally I approached the problem of voluptuous and carved surfaces, employing the boxwood burnishing stick and the polissoir, with impressive results given the few seconds I had in hand.
I got excellent and encouraging feedback, and the CW folks must have liked what they saw because I have been invited to return in the fall for three days of in-house hands-on training for the cabinetmakers, gunsmiths, and housewrights on the topic of historic finishing.