This One’s A Head Scratcher

During a recent dive into my inventory of block planes needing restoration the lines of this one caught my eye.  It was comely, with a very low angle so I immediately thought it would be a good candidate for me to restore for my son-in-law.  Sure it was void of any adjusting controls but he knows how to adjust a plane manually with an iron-setting hammer.

At second glance there was something hinky going on with the plane.   Was the iron sitting in the pin?

Once I took it apart the confusion set in.  What the heck?  The way I read this tool, with the iron not resting over the pin but impaled on the pin, the iron is utterly and completely un-adjustable!  In one sense the tool is on the “primitive side” given the ostensible lack of mechanized adjustments.  Bur completely un-adjustable?  Given the general quality of the plane design and quality execution, I’m just left scratching my head.


At this point I’m noodling soldering on a block over the pin and using the tool as I first figured it was designed.  Or is the pin malleable and designed to be whacked back and forth with the iron?

Any thoughts?

Patternmaker’s Tool Kit Revisited

At first glance the patternmaker’s tool kit might seem nearly identical to that of the furniture maker.  Scribes, squares, dog-leg paring chisels, marking gauges (of which this kit had more than a half-dozen) etc., are identical even though their uses may be a bit different.  But the tools are the same.

Even their differences might be chalked up to meaningless peculiarities, but they are not.  Here is a brief review of some if those items unique to patternmaking, or uses of typical tools for particular applications.

Shrink Rules/Scales

Especially at the industrial scale resides the inescapable fact that molten metals shrink when they cool and solidify, and the degree of shrinkage depends on the metal alloy in question.  For this reason the patternmaker’s kit includes a variety of precision rules that take shrinkage into consideration, and when a new pattern is commissioned the drawings are transferred to a full-scale master made on a new piece of hardwood plywood with the dimensions established by the shrink scale.  In other words if the item being designed is to be 12″ long, in true measurement it would be 12 inches plus some fraction, but all of the scale delineations are created proportionally.  Thus when we were making  pump shell patterns for dredging operations, our main business, sometimes those patterns would measure 6, 8, or 10-feet in diameter (or even bigger).  When cast in grey iron the patterns for a 10-foot shell diameter were actually 10′ + 10/8ths inches in diameter (10′- 1-1/4″) since the shrink rate for iron is 1/8″ per foot of dimension.  This issue is rarely a fundamental consideration for the scale at which I cast these days.  For example when calculating the shrinkage on the Studley mallet bronze shell, with an overall dimension in the neighborhood of two inches given the shrink rate of bronze as 3/16″ per foot, the mallet shell casting would shrink 1/6th of 3/16″ or about 1/32″.  Even though I will use a shrink rule to lay out the pattern, I could probably get by without it.  Once I get done casting the mallet heads I will be moving on to patterns for the Studley piano maker’s vise, and that will be large enough to use the shrink rule for sure.

Dividers and Trammel Points

Dividers are critical for transferring the shrink-layout dimensions to the pattern itself.  This speaks to the importance of the master layout, usually executed on a pristine piece of hardwood plywood, as patternmakers realize and generally live by the ethos that “measuring is the enemy.”  If you get the master layout correct it is a regular routine to use dividers and trammel points to transfer and establish all dimensions for constructing the pattern from the layout.  In fact once the master layout is completed the only thing I can recall using the shrink rule for was when planing the laminar sections for stack laminated construction that was the norm when I worked in the trade.  I think it is pretty much a dead trade, nowadays everything is done with compewders and CNC/3D printing fabrication.

Beveling Gauges

Tapered angles are a huge part of a pattern, particularly in the tapers of edges that are more-or-less perpendicular to the parting line,  This bevel is known and “the draft” and to my knowledge always resided around the neighborhood of 2-degrees.  Thus a machinist’s combination square set with a protractor head was used almost every day, augmented with a bevel gauge for transferring the draft angle to the table saw and sanding machines (see below).  I probably used my protractor head with a 24″ rule more in one week at the pattern shop than in the 40 years since.

Sculpting Tools – Inside (Gouges and Draw Spoons)

Whenever a pattern shape has to be derived by handwork rather than lathe work, the two tool types employed for working the inside curves were gouges, of which there were a dozen or more in the full kit, and draw spoons, usually numbering a half dozen in graduate sizes.  The gouges are peculiar in that they have interchangeable handles, shanks, and heads, and usually made from high-chromium steel with very thin walls, and several are in-camber.  These are pushing tools, not striking tools.

If you have followed my work on Gragg chairs you have seen frequent use of draw spoons for working the swale of the seat deck.  They were used in a similar manner for working for the pattern shop as large, sweeping interior hollows were shaped delicately with the draw spoon.

Sculpting Tools – Outside (Spokeshaves)

Virtually all of the outside sculpting was accomplished with spokeshaves, seemingly undersized by furniture makers but capable of really hogging off material when necessary, or feathering a finished surface.  Patternmakers usually owned and used at least a half dozen brass spokeshaves.

Fillet Irons

Another truth about metal casting and shrinkage is that whenever two surfaces meet at a right angle or anything near, the crisp inside corner needs to be filled with a cove molding to soften the transition from one plane to the other, otherwise the casting will crack at that line.  In my experience this cove was established by shaped wax sticks, called fillets, which were purchased in bulk as literal cove moldings in wax.  I recall many, many hours carefully heating both the polished steel ball serving as the anvil, and the long wax sticks, then pressing the warmed wax molding into the inside corner using the fillet iron of the correct size.

This set of fillet irons even came with a scribed pattern block for making scrapers for each iron.

If it went well there was very little scraping afterwards to achieve a perfect inside corner, other times required some shaping with home made scrapers, one for each size of fillet.

Fillet Cutters

In the days before my time in the foundry fillets were cut from the edges of very thick pieces of leather using fillet cutters to create the roughly triangular fillet.  These tools would be pulled across the edge of the leather sheet, usually along a straightedge, resulting in a cove-ish strip of leather to use as the fillet.   These leather fillets were applied using glue and brads, and the whole assembly was finished by heavy burnishing with the fillet iron.  I never had to use this method but since I have a set of the cutters and live in cattle country, come the zombie apocalypse I will be ready.





Core Box Planes

In the Golden Age of Foundries there was probably no bigger component of the industry than that of making pipes.  Think about the civic infrastructure whether on a single building scale or a national scale.  It was all made from or connected with pipes or pipe-like elements.  Making an outside sand mold to cast pipe-ish shapes is no big deal, all the expertise was applied to the problem of making a sand mold “core” to establish the cylindrical hollow insides.  For that process a special “core box” had to be made for each unique casting.  Often the shape of the box was achieved with core box planes, of which there were many varieties.


Some looked more akin to a set of hollows-and-rounds,


others were similar to the H&R set but instead of full body planes they had a single body with interchangeable soles and irons,

and undoubtedly the weirdest ones were metal frames with notched outriggers to ride on the outside of the core box and were equipped with ratcheting rotating cutting arms that advanced a few degrees around the compass to complete the half-core.  Oh, and these mechanical core box planes looked suspiciously like a Klingon warship.  There is yet a fourth version that is essentially a right-angle sole bisected by the iron, but I do not own one of those.  NB –  metal casting of almost any kind involves core box work regardless of the shape so long as the casting has a hollow configuration.


Power Tools and Accessories

Patternmaking since the mid-1800s has employed a variety of machines for fundamental work.  Included were power planers (I just use my lunchbox planer but if I did lots of patterns I would get my Mini-Max 14″ combination machine up and running) that could quickly and precisely dimension stock to the peculiar measurements required especially for stack laminated patterns, tables saws, disc sanders and oscillating spindle sanders to allow working to the middle of a cut-scribed layout line at a precise bevel angle usually 2-degrees.

If you follow my trek down the metalcasting road you will see all of these tools demonstrated over time.  Well, maybe not the core box planes as I have little intention of casting large pieces of iron pipe.

Stay tuned.

PS  I was wondering if I should make a start-to-finish video on metal casting, but I gotta get the Gragg video done first.

Block Planes for Christmas

After air abrading the two block planes in preparation for their becoming Christmas gifts for my son-in-law, I re-flattened the soles and sides with a finer grit abrasive draped over my granite block, I think it was 120.  I taped off these new surfaces and sprayed the planes with gloss black enamel then set them in the window sill to dry really hard, rotating them daily for a couple weeks to make sure the sunlight got everything as cooked evenly as possible.

Removing the tape and sharpening the irons to a mirrored edge that could remove gossamer wisps of wood, oiled every place that might need lubricating, they were ready to wrap as stocking stuffers.

Rehabilitating then gifting block planes is a great way to introduce someone to the experience of a high performance tool.

Studley Mallet Pattern – Ready, Set, Go!

With the decks finally cleared, well mostly cleared at least enough for me to get going down a path whose map has been known for several years, I gathered all the reference materials needed to make the casting patterns for the bronze heads of the HO Studley infill mallet.  In addition to the detailed measurements I made when examining the original while assembling the book and the exhibit of the tool cabinet and workbench I had some additional resources.  First, as I have mentioned previously, are the hundreds of photographs.  Second are the set of silicon rubber molds I was allowed to take from the original.  Third, I move forward with the encouragement of the owner of the tool collection itself; I contacted him when the idea for making replicas was first coming into focus.  He was enthusiastic about the idea and I believe very appreciative of my consideration in asking his permission.  He is indeed a very conscientious historical steward and as I have stated explicitly, he is exactly the right owner and caretaker for this treasure.


In many respects the first two items are combined as I have noted the detailed measurements on the detailed photographs.


But even detailed images and numbers are not the same thing as three-dimensional representations of the real thing.  Taking the silicon molds I made several study castings in wax so that I could more faithfully represent the original in my own pattern modeling.  Given the dimensional inertness of the molds and the wax castings made from them I can get truly precise measurements and relationships from exact representations of the mallet head itself.

Time to set up a dedicated space, get my tools and go to work.

Patternmaker’s Tool Kit

NB — I cannot recall if I ever wrote about this on the blog.  If not, fine.  If yes, you get to read it again.

As I am in the midst of pattern work and prototyping for producing replicas of the HO Studley infill mallet I have been using my retinue of patternaking tools, which naturally draws my memory back to the day 15 years ago when I responded to an ad in Craigslist; I used to scour the Tools section regularly.

The ad was, to say the least, terse and enticing.

Fine woodworking tools. call 703 *** ****

That’s all.  Fine woodworking tools.  I called, and the fellow’s location was just off I-66 and since I was heading out from Mordor for a weekend in Shangri-la the following day, we arranged for me to come to his home to check it out.  I arrived with all the cash in my Tool Acquisition Fund ($400) and he ushered me into the basement room where the tools were.

As we went down the stairs he said “I’m not even sure what all of these tools are, but my Dad was a patternmaker in the Houston shipyards and I am moving into a smaller townhouse on Capitol Hill and just need to get rid of stuff.”  Even before we reached the bottom landing my heart was racing.

You see, ever since Mrs. Barn and I got married (40 years next month) and I left the pattern shop for us to go back to college, she was getting an MS in Plant Pathology and I was giving undergraduate coursework a third and final try, I had been looking for tools from the patternmaker’s kit to add to my own.  My time in the pattern shop as extraordinarily formative, it was where I learned the definition of “precision woodworking” and practiced it probably more than at any point in my life.

And there it was, a more complete patternmaker’s tool set than I even used in the foundry pattern shop, residing in a pristine but vintage Gerstner patternmaker’s tool chest.

As he opened the drawers the seller said, “I don’t even know what this stuff is, can you tell me what it is?”

For over an hour I walked him through the case’s contents, describing what each tool was.  Admittedly the set of orthopedist’s chisels made me scratch my head a bit.

Then came the moment when I asked him what he wanted for the collection.  Remember, I had $400 available for the transaction.

“I don’t know,” he said.  “What is it worth?”

I replied, “Well, here’s the good news and the bad news.  The good news is tool set is incredibly complete and probably worth something like $2000-3000 at least.  The bad news is $400 is all I’ve got.”

I was not going to cheat him out of a family heirloom.

I thanked him for the opportunity to browse through his father’s tool chest, which included even his union card and dues account book.

“Someone else will come along who can give you a fair price for this, so just wait for them to call you,” I said.

I left and drove to Shangri-la with mixed emotions.  On one hand it was a terrific opportunity to re-live a foundational period of my life, but on the other I really did have a fixed budget of $400.  I would never draw money out of the family budget to buy this so I knew that the opportunity was gone.

Two weeks later, much to my surprise he gave me a call.   “You were right,” he said, “I got a lot of interest in the tool set.  But everybody is trying to chisel me on the price, and that really p!$$e$ me off.  So if you can pay $400 and promise to keep the set together and use it for patternmaking, come and get it.”

I picked it up the next evening and he held back only two tools which were too valuable to include in the bargain; a 36″ Starrett Vernier gauge, and a 36″ Starrett bevel-gauge rule, the kind with the 2″ wide scale.

Over these years I have fulfilled my promise and kept the tool set intact and used it for patternmaking work, including the ongoing Studley mallet head project.  The only thing I have done is to disperse some of the tool collection into a companion Gerstner patternmaker’s tool chest, a fairly unusual form acquired at one of the MJD auctions.

I did not conduct a detailed inventory and valuation for the set, it is worth whatever it is worth and my heirs can deal with that in thirty or forty years.  The only exception was that I must admit to checking on the tool cabinet itself.  At that time a vintage Gerstner Patternmaker’s Tool Chest in excellent condition, which this was and is, was around $800.

Don’t you just love a story with a happy ending?

The Joys of Photogrammetry

As I  move forward with prototypes for producing my line of HO Studley mallets I am aided by a number of different assets.  For starters I have in hand almost 20 of the castings from Bill Martley, in a variety of alloys, to work with in taking the rough metal castings to a point of “finished” that I would feel comfortable in providing to interested customers.

Second, I have a boatload of photographic images of the mallet from about every angle possible (it might seem adequate to have several dozen images, but they are never enough).  Reviewing them does make me reflect on the unbelievable resource residing in my compewder; between my images and Narayan’s images I have almost 7,500 pictures on my hard drive .[As a snarky aside, I note that on occasion someone on the interwebz requests (or worse, demands!) that Narayan make all the high quality unpublished images available on-line for free, somehow not registering the facts that 1) the images are the creative property of Narayan and/or Chris, and 2) the images are the result of an investment of (literally) tens of thousands of dollars.  If you have ever expressed this sentiment, grow up. — DCW]  

Third, a topic I will address in a later post, I have several molds made directly from the original mallet.

Finally, and perhaps the strongest impetus foundational to this project, I have the enthusiastic approval of Mister Stewart to proceed with my effort to make replica mallets because, and I quote, “People should be using this mallet.”  That endorsement is a great encouragement to me and I will produce a tool and make it available only once I am proud of it bearing my imprimatur.  At some point very soon I will embark on designing the logos to be stamped or engraved into the mallet itself.

During the many episodes of us examining and photographing the tool cabinet and all its contents, one of the first projects Narayan and Chris conducted was to take “study shots” of every tool so that I could use these pictures as pneumonics for my own work in constructing the book.  A second exercise was to formally photograph every tool with a scale included in the frame.  Though a standard tool for documenting artifacts in the museum/conservation field from whence I emerged, it has never been more valuable to me than it is right now.  Since my documentation for the mallet was not infinitely complete I still had a number of minute details I needed to establish in order to replicate the tool.  To cross electron beams with Roubo, I wanted my replica mallet to be accomplished “With all the precision possible.”

Thus the images with the scale in the frame are my “go to” tools for making sure I get the details exactly right.  I can fiddle with the file to make sure the printed image is precisely the size of the original artifact, but it is much easier to simply employ the tools of photogrammetry to the task.  Although I believe software packages like Sketch-Up do this automatically, I am old school having learned classical photogrammetry in Architectural History classes back in the 70s.  Once again the learning of the past solves the problem of the present.

The top scale is one made from cutting out the photograph, the bottom scale is a 6-inch rule from my machinist’s tool kit.

Printing out one of the pictures representing the orientation I needed to make the handle (made from dalbergia, just like the original; I do not have much dalbergia so I might switch to swietenia mahoganii or another tropical hardwood at some point) with the scale included, I simply cut out the scale and used it to measure all the critical dimensions.  As you can see the photographic representation of the scale differs greatly from the true scale, that difference is irrelevant because the image of the mallet itself is exactly the same scale as the photographed scale.

This exercise of using a “wrong sized” scale may be disconcerting to some, but it was the daily order of business when I was a patternmaker.  The patternmaker’s tool kit includes a variety of rulers called “shrink scales.”  These modified rules are used to lay out and construct a pattern to be used in making the molds for metal castings, and since each metal alloy shrinks a little bit when it solidifies the precise size of the pattern must reflect that reality.

At this point, especially as I create the handle, photogrammetry is more than a mere tool.  It is the irreplaceable element.

Sandblasting System Back End

Back by popular demand – sandblasting!  I am delighted to profile my complete sandblasting system.

The starting point is my “nothing special” $75 Craiglist compressor in the basement of the barn, residing there because it is a diaphragm compressor head rather than a piston head and thus pretty noisy.  The compressor unit is a 2 HP motor/head attached to a 10 gallon tank.  The compressor is attached to the air-abrasive gun via a typical reguator/air hose system and quick-release pneumatic fittings.  I generally operate my blasting gun at around 40 psi which gives me good control and adequate aggressiveness and is well within the capacity of the compressor.

The blasting gun attached to the hose is a siphon-feed unit, ancient (probably Craftsman) but indistinguishable from some thing you could buy tomorrow at Harbor Freight.


The system operates like this:  The air running through the gun nozzle creates a partial vacuum in another feed-line fitting/tube which draws the abrasive medium through the siphon tube.  In that effect it is identical to a paint spray gun, but instead of pulling up liquid paint and atomizing it through an atomizing nozzle it is sucking up the abrasive and focusing it through the gun output aperture.  As a general practice I simply jam the end of the siphon tube into the bottom of the abrasive reservoir, almost always just a bag of the abrasive or a five gallon bucket if I am feeling fancy.  I refill the bag/bucket with “overspray” abrasive gathered from the trash can.  I’ve thought about getting a fixed metal “hopper” reservoir but the bag/bucket work just fine for me.

One final word: make sure to wear eye, hand, and face protection.  Really.  I generally use a face shield, light leather or rubber gloves, and a dust mask or respirator.  You do not want to get even a smidge of this in your eyes or lungs.


BTW I got my stitches out yesterday and much to the doc’s surprise I have had zero discomfort since Saturday, when I became pain free and cane free.  As he commented, “This level of recovery is unusual for someone at your stage of life.”  Apparently for geezoids like me the cartilage pain is compounded by an even more severe arthritis pain, which I do have some but not yet to the serious pain level.  If arthritis is the foundational pain problem, repairing the cartilage will not diminish the pain to my current level of “0.”  Still a little stiffness but that will disappear with motion and PT.  I’ve been told to take it easy for a month, which I will probably sorta do.  Off to mow the lawn.


One of the tools integral to a multidimensional shop is a sandblasting rig.   All it takes is an air compressor and hoses, a blasting gun, and some abrasive to feed through the gun.

Since I have been doing some tool and metal restoration and finishing lately it was time for me to dust off my vintage sandblasting gun, itself an artifact of unknown age from my late Dad’s workshop.  It still works like a charm for my needs.  One aspect of sandblasting that often discourages new users is that the medium (the particulate abrasive used to scour the surface) tends to go everywhere and the entire space gets gritty in a big hurry.  The typical solution to the problem is an enclosed blasting cabinet, and almost every commercial metals shop has one.  But I am not a commercial shop and did not want to dedicate the space and money to get one for my occasional uses.

After giving the problem a bit of thought I came up with a solution that suits my needs perfectly, and that solution was to create a cradle inside a trash can to use as my blasting platform.  With a piece of 1/2″ x 1/2″ hardware cloth from my scrap inventory I cut and bent it to fit down inside one of my trash containers such that the object being blasted was about nine inches below the top lip.  Working that far down, and always blasting in  a downward direction, meant that the gritty abrasive went to the bottom of the container.  This not only prevents widespread deposits of the grit everywhere, it also allows for me to simply pour it back into the abrasive bag to reuse the next time I fired up the system.  There is a bit of fine dust coming out of the chamber but I deal with that by simply taking the plastic trash can out into the driveway and let the air current waft it away.

As for the abrasive medium itself I just buy it from Tractor Supply.  I get two grit sizes but mostly rely on the fine grit.  The coarse grit is reserved for anything really encrusted with rust or other accretions.

For restoring the hand planes as gifts my air abrasive system gets an old plane stripped of rust and old chipped paint and ready for restoring in about 90 seconds.

Restoring Vintage Planes For Gifts

One of the pleasant tasks I undertake, one I am sure I share with many of you, is restoring vintage tools to both infuse new life into them and then impart them to loved ones who will appreciate and use them.  Given the addition of a son-in-law to the family almost four years ago (we had two daughters who are now interested in skilled trades but were too busy being dancers and valedictorians and eventually summa cum lauds to join me in the basement shop when we lived in the same house those many years ago) I almost always have a project of three in mind for him as he continues building the tool inventory of his own.  He is pretty well set for metalworking tools, he was trained as an engineer after all, but I can be most helpful in the woodworking department.

As has been my custom for a couple decades I buy block and bench planes inexpensively at flea markets and auctions, then restore them to sublime condition.  My guidance for this often  comes from RalphB over at The Accidental Woodworker, whose blog is truly a tutorial on the subject of plane restoration.

My usual starting point is to browse my collection of aged beauties to see if there are any compete and intact candidates.

Then I dismantle the candidates to confirm their completeness and intact-ness.  If there is a damaged element and I can plug in a replacement part from another damaged tool I am now ready to proceed.

A third preliminary step is to examine and even flatten the sole because if the sole is damaged beyond repair there is no point in going any further.  Planes with unsalvageable soles become parts donors.

This past fall I picked out a few candidates for the Lt. Cdr. as Christmas gifts and set to work on them.

Stay tuned.

Kalifornyuh Dreamin’ 2

Here are more of the items sifted from the cleaning-out of my father-in-law’s house.  Some of these treasures were left behind, but many of them are now ensconced in the barn.

As I get older I gravitate more and more toward rulers rather than tape measures (especially at the bench), notwithstanding the reality that a Stanley 12-foot Powerlock tape fits perfectly and resides in my coin pocket virtually 100% of the time I am not at church or the doctor’s office.  In Dick’s menagerie was this four-foot folding cabinetmaker’s rule, and it is now nestled in my carpenter’s tote.

Many years ago my pal MikeM made a vest pin out of a Shinola brand shoe polish tin, a much loved artifact that remains in my collection.  When coming across this bottle of shoe polish how could I not bring this back home to go into the gallery in the barn?  Perhaps I can even use it to analyze the utterances of public officials to see if I can distinguish, uh, stuff, from Shinola.

Being a real guy, Dick probably went out and bought a new tool when he could not find his other one (at least I have been told that this is a tendency; hmmm, it might explain my half-dozen caulk guns), which would justify the three torque wrenches in the garage.  I brought one home and gave the other two away to good homes.  I cannot recall the last time I needed a torque wrench myself, probably when I rebuilt an industrial planer in 1982, but if I have to do it gain I am equipped.

One of the items I left behind was something that truly surprised me.  I had not known that the Zyliss company made more than the renowned vises, of which I own a half dozen and find them nearly irreplaceable when making Gragg chairs of teaching marquetry.  Lo and behold there was this NIB food chopper in the kitchen cabinet.  I almost wish I had brought it back.

The final item, and one which holds great sentimental value for me, was this can of the revered Man O’ War brand of spar varnish.  It was of an indefinable age, but nearly full and the contents were in perfect condition.  I remember using Man O’ War on some very expensive porch furniture (not mine) back around 1975, and it was sublime in both workability and performance.  I left it behind because it would have been problematic to ship it back from The Peoples Republic of Kalifornistan, for the same reason that I refuse to ship Mel’s Wax to Cali.

Though it was superb I could not justify shipping home a vintage 4-inch Wilton torpedo vise or the tool boxes full of pliers, screwdrivers, wrenches, and socket sets.