Behold the Humble Clothespin Redux

Some time last year I wrote an honorific on behalf of the clothespin, an integral tool in my workshop.


I’ve overlooked another vital function of this remarkable tool — if you get better-quality pins, as I do, they can be used as wonderful little shimming wedges for leveling something as heavy as a work bench or as a clamping wedge for something as delicate as carved tortoiseshell.  I recently moved my workbench a foot or so and it wobbled just the slightest bit.  I probably could have worked with it, but alas a wobbly workbench is one of my craziness-inducing hot buttons.  So I just grabbed a maple clothespin, took one half as the quick and high-performing wedge shim, and tossed the other half back into the container with its mates for the next time I need another tapered shim.

Right Tool(s), Right Place(s)

My studio space in the barn is a work in progress.  It has been so since the first day I put a single, raggedy workbench in there several years ago even before all the walls were up, and the process will continue as long as I work there.


I find that the fluid nature of shop organization is one of the threads binding craftsmen together, and a source of celebration when we gather together.  Fortunately for me, I do not have the urgent requirement for maximized cash flow velocity generation from my work space, since my primary source of income these days is in the crafting of words while sitting on my recliner.

And, since I have been limited in the scope of my activities recently I have been reflecting on, and to some degree changing, the spatial flow for the studio.  One of the advantages of this long lead time of several years of working there is to evolve a better sense of what the space should be to best serve my needs.  And now I am making those changes, albeit slowly as there is only so much you can do on one leg.

I’ve already written about the reconfiguration of one corner to more optimally serve as my bench for doing the “fussy” work I encounter frequently in the conservation and restoration of decorative artifacts, and increasingly the repair of vintage gun stocks.

Other issues have nagged me, and are now in the process of being resolved.  The first of these was my inadequate space in a single location for the residence of my hand planes. I liked the space I had chosen, directly over the planing beam, but I needed to consolidate all my inventory, which involved several steps.


First, I started undertaking a serious evaluation of many of the planes marginal to my work, deciding what to keep and then tossing aside planes that took up space but were not part of my working regimen.  Down they came and out they will go.


That cleared some space, but not enough.  So, I added more shelving without adding more shelves.  How?  By simply doubling the depth of the shelves in situ.  Why I did not do this from the git go remains a mystery.  Then I removed the silly brackets holding my Stanley/Bailey planes and hung them on the wall.

Presto!  The result is twice as many planes in the same visual space.


The next move was the consolidation and moving of my Japanese tools from a nearly inaccessible place on the east wall to a cabinet in the remaining niche over the planing beam.  With saws on the outside and more saws, chisels, planes (and space for more on the inside) I am pleased with the result.  (You needn’t scold me that I have the planes upside down in storage — I do not care)


Two final (?) issues to be resolved are the rat’s nest of a space halfway down the long north wall,  which had become nothing more than a pile of stuff, some good, some less so, but all in the wrong place.  This hodgepodge will be replaced in October when I build my Nicholson bench prototype for the rescheduled Refinisher’s Group bench-build (probably May 2016).  This can serve as another work bench and my sharpening station.


And I keep asking myself: with such a wealth of windows, why do I keep covering them up with stuff?  Without a good answer other than, “Because you are an undisciplined slob,” I have begun to deliberately move many of the tools that were blocking the view to somewhere else, like alongside the overhead beams.  That one will take a fair bit of trial and error to bring to fruition.

But I am determined to travel much less in the coming year or more, and pouring my time and creative energies into the barn and homestead.  This will allow much in the way of improvements and I am anxious for them to unfold.


Like many woodworkers, over the years I have compiled more tools than I need (shhhh!; fortunately Mrs. Barn does not read this blog much so she does not need to be made aware of this confession).  It was often from noble impulses as I would see a nice tool that was way underpriced, and say to myself, “Let me get that and find a good home for it.”


Regardless of the true motive, one undeniable fact remains;  that “good home” was not to be my studio.  There is no need for me to have several bushel baskets of tools that I do not and will not use.  Some redundancy may be sensible, but do I really need six #6 Bailey planes?  Or two dozen coffin planes?  Two drawers full of bench chisels?


Over the past week I have been trying to impose, or at least, evolve some sort of order and organization to the barn studio.  And time after time I would want to derive just the right spot for a tool or set of tools only to find that perfect spot was already full of boxes, bins, and tubs of tools.

So, beginning now and continuing through winter I vow to winnow my tool inventory, compiling a collection that I will sell, gift, or otherwise dispense.  I will try to have a nice collection for sale at the Maple Festival in March, but otherwise will find places I can facilitate the parting of company., SAPFM Chapter meetings, etc., and if necessary get a table at MJD’s auction next summer.   I am not going into the tool mongering biz– it is done far better by folks like Josh Clark, Martin Donnelly, and Patrick Leach, and others, and I will leave them to it — I am merely cleaning house.

Some tools will be, or can be made into, very nice “user tools.”  For example, the #7 Bailey I bought recently for $15, with flaking varnish on the handles and a blade that has never been sharpened.  Since I can sharpen fairly quickly it would be nice to get each edge  tool presentable.

It will be quite nice to gain the space occupied by these tools, and hope they will do good work in the service of craftsmanship.  In someone else’s shop.

And all I have to do is stop buying more tools I don’t need!

To Paraphrase Crocodile Dundee…

… now THAT is a well-tuned hand plane.

I can sit and review Roubo for only so long, and when my computer wanders  the internet it finds amazing things.  You might be familiar with this particular video — I am aware of the Japanese planing contests but had not seen this one before — but I certainly got a kick out of it.

God bless the Japanese, they take any manifestation of excellence and turn it into an all consuming monomaniacal pursuit.

MJD Toolapalooza Day 3

Truth be told the only reason for me to stay for the third day was to bid on a pair of magnificent new-in-the-box Japanese planes from the estate of Jay Gaynor, friend and tool maven from Colonial Williamsburg (I thought I took a picture of these, but my camera says “no”).  One of the planes in particular was simply magnificent, easily a plane well beyond my budget — perhaps as much as $4-5k new — but I hoped that perhaps in this crowd of vintage toolaholics this might slip between the cracks, bid-wise, and I could pick it up for a pittance which sometimes happens for tools that have little interest to the crowd.  So I  settled in to watch the entertainment that is a superb auction of things I like.


In the mean time we waited with anticipation and encouragement for Sharon to bid on a vintage printing press she had developed a crush on.  When the time came we all cheered as she got it!  The smile on her face was so big it enveloped her whole body.  Truly, her delight was infectious.


In the aftermath of that she saw a small lot with something she wanted to get for her husband who was unable to come with her.  Part of that lot was a very fine file-maker’s hammer, which we discussed when previewing the box.  I have no real need for a file-maker’s hammer, but when she won that lot too we made a deal for it to go home with me.  Perhaps I can figure out a good use for it, but for the immediate future it will just be something to show off.

Then came my Japanese plane lot.  The bid started low, indicated little interest in the absentee-bid sector, which I took to be a very good sign.  Unfortunately there was in the tent a fellow who came down from Canada for the simple and singular cause of going home with those planes, and he did.  I ran into him as we were checking out, and he is committed to putting the plane to use in his studio, which I admire.  I was going to do the same thing.  Since I didn’t get this one I now have the inspiration to get all of my Japanese planes tuned to perfection.


Disappointed but not distraught I immediately sought out the flea market vendor who had the infill miter plane I had looked at frequently through the weekend, and we made the deal for it to come home with me.  It was little-used, and with some sprucing up it will become a centerpiece of my working plane set.  I will use it as a dedicated plane for my shooting boards, and may make some new ones in celebration.


Though unmarked, the vendor thought it might be from the renowned British maker Robert Towell, an attribution I find persuasive.  My friend Raney Nelson used a Towell plane as the model for his full-sized infill planes, so when I see Raney next month I will ask him to look at it.   You can see the old Towell next to one of Raney’s petite miter planes on my bench.


Thus endeth our time at Toolapalooza 2015.  We bid farewell’s all around, and headed for home with thought of next year.  Perhaps it is time to cull the inventory of surplus tools and set up our own table out in the flea market.


MJD Toolapalooza Day 2

The second day of toolapalooza was slow for me as I bid on only a couple of lots and won one, a box full of infill planes that were by almost any definition, stragglers.cIMG_0283

I’ve been wanting to play with infills in preparation for making one or more this coming winter, and getting a box full of them for a few bucks apiece was irresistible.


The three full-sized smoothers came with five smaller planes, including two dandy chariot style planes that should clean up very nicely.


The smoothers themselves were clunky at best, and for the purchase price and current non-functionality I have no qualms about wading into them with a heavy hand.  The first one has a nicely spacious opening in the handle, well within the needs of me wrapping my fingers around it.  I am pretty sure the Stanley lever cap is after market, ad it will go into my parts drawer immediately.


The second handled smoother is cursed with a far too small opening for my fingers.  I have not yet decided whether to enlarge the current hole or replace the entire infill.  Ditto the front knob infill.




The third pane, sans tote, is the most intriguing to me as it has the possibility of being transformed into something pretty special.

The day ended with Martin’s traditional Friday Night Pig Roast followed by the circle of bloviation and lie-swapping, er, fellowship, around the magnificent fire pit.  After a few minutes we left to get a good night’s sleep.

MJD Toolapalooza Day 1




Once again this year I was able to attend Martin Donnelly’s summer auction at his place in Avoca NY.  I have been to many Donnelly Auctions over the years, but these summer ones are always my favorites because the warehouse is being emptied.  The sheer quantity of tools is staggering (I think this year there were about 60,000 mostly woodworking tools in 3200 lots being sold in twenty hours of auctioneering!).  This is the MJD auction with the highest number of “user” tools while his other auctions have a higher proportion of “collectible” tools.

As with other recent pilgrimages to Donnelly’s, I joined a good fellowship of friends.  My old pal MikeM could not make it this year, but I was kept company by “Jersey” JonS, Josh Clark of Hyperkitten, TomD from the Chesapeake Chapter of SAPFM, MartinF from Toledo, and new-to-Donnelly JoshP, with whom I rode, and SharonQ.  It was a gas watching Sharon and JoshP being totally overwhelmed by the multiple circus tents of tools.


TomD is already at Lot 200. Only 3,000 lots to go!

JoshP and I arrived late afternoon on Wednesday to begin working or way through the lots, which we resumed the next morning in preparation for the 2PM start.


We also worked in some quality time in the adjacent field with tailgaters  offering many tools for sale in a flea market setting.  Here is Josh gazing at the first booth we came to on our trek.


I bought a beautiful little Brazilian Rosewood torpedo level to fit into my evolving Studleyesque traveling tool kit (a couple of mother-of-pearl inlays and it will fit in nicely), and a little brass hammer that will be perfect for adjusting plane irons.


I kept finding my gaze returning to a British infill miter plane one of the dealers had.  I made a mental note about that one.


One totally unnecessary temptation was this beautiful little Gerstner Tool traveling dentists’ box, complete with dental tools.  It would have fit alongside my other Gerstner tool cabinets perfectly, but I am trying to not purchase things I do not “need.”  (okay, quit snickering)

JoshP and I were both interested in getting an anvil, of which there were many offered, and sat to begin the bidding. I had a few other items I was going to bid on, and wound up getting a couple of them;


a pair of St. Johnsbury squares very similar to some in Studley’s tool cabinet (though not nearly as nice, yet — they were pretty rough and went really cheap),


and a near complete half-set of hollows-and-rounds. I bid hard on a very nice new Japanese plane but did not get it.  No biggie, there were two even nicer new Japanese planes coming up on Saturday.


One of the most fun things about being at an auction with Josh Clark is that aside from being delightful company, he is buying a lot of stuff for his Hyperkitten Tool website inventory, and he is extremely amenable to wheeling and dealing with you on lots that he buys.


That is how I ended the first day with a pair of planes that will be perfect for hollowing out the seats of the Gragg chairs I will be making this coming winter.  I had never before seen a compassed toothing plane, and the little hollowing plane is simply perfect for making chair seats.  But they were in lots that Josh bought, and I acquired them before they got lost in his Hyperkitten inentory.

I think each of us in our posse made multiple deals with Josh over the course of the weekend.

Thus endeth Day One of the MJD Toolapalooza


My Indispensible Tool

Perhaps like  many other craftsmen, I am occasionally asked, “What is your favorite tool?”  That particular question is essentially unanswerable due to my changing needs from moment to moment, the workpiece itself, my frame of mind, etc.  One minute it could be my Raney Nelson petite miter plane, the next it could be an Auriou rasp, Bad Axe dovetail saw, Knew Concepts coping/jewler’s saw, something the wizards at Veritas dreamed up, or an antique or something purpose made by my own hands like some sculpting tools I made from solid ivory.

However, if the question being asked was, “What is your most important tool?” or even better  “What is the tool you use the most?” the answer is a bit more measurable, especially when viewed through the lens of my day-to-day life, with a reference data base of several decades.  Coming immediately on the heels of my adventures in home improvement in The Heartland, my answer is unambiguous.


Without a doubt the tool I use several times every day, whether I am doing home repair, barn construction, cabinet making, furniture conservation, gunsmithing, chores around the homestead or anything else is my high quality multi-tool.  My email pen pal Rob Hanus of The Preparedness Podcast argues for a good quality knife being the most important tool, and I won’t quarrel with him other than to say that a good quality multi-tool has a good knife and a bunch of other good tools as well.

I have long been a fan of multi-tools, and have accumulated a drawer-full of different versions over the past forty years.  Of course the gateway drug for multi-tools is the pocket knife (at this point I am not certain you can call yourself a man if you do not carry a pocket knife — if this comment offends you, save your breath as I no longer have to go to sensitivity training, which was pretty much wasted on me anyway…). The very first tool I ever bought myself was a multi-blade Craftsman pocket knife which is still in my bedside box.  I cannot recall my first true multi-tool, but it was probably an inexpensive and forgettable indiscretion from my late youth.

I am so committed to the utilitarian elegance of good multi-tools that I have outfitted my wife and both daughters with one, with instructions that they be carried in their purses.  I’ll have to check to see if they are following those instructions.

For the past almost fifteen years, that is since the TSA folks confiscated my well-loved and now nearly unobtainable original Leatherman Super Tool at LAX, my tool of choice has been a gunmetal black Victorinox Spirit, which I found to be much better quality than the old Leatherman or any of its descendants since.  My Spirit started out as a jet black gun-blued unit but the wear from years of heavy daily use are now giving it some bright and shiny spots.

I try to keep the main blade sharp, not always an easy task given the stuff I sometimes cut, I do keep the secondary, scalloped, knife blade sharp, use the awl, screwdrivers, and file daily, and the bottle opener, saw, and chisel more frequently than you might think.

I bought a newer polished-stainless-steel Victorinox Spirit X unit some years ago, but the second knife blade, a scalloped blade, has been replace by a very nice little pair of scissors.  Now I use my original Spirit in my daily blue jeans and leave the newer pretty one for my travel bag.  I suspect yet another one will be joining its siblings whenever I find one for the right price.

I just have to remember to put it in the checked luggage next time I fly, which I if get my druthers will be never.


Workshop Minimalism in the Heartland IV


I now had a small but well tuned set of tools to conduct the trim work, perhaps not to Jeff Burks’ standards, but certainly adequate to the task of making our daughter’s rental house habitable.



Toss in the bench-y thing outfitted with two large wood screws to serve as a vise, and we were off to the races.



I made myself a makeshift miter jig and bench hook, and spent a week cutting, finishing and applying trim, trimming door panels so that damaged doors could be reassembled, hanging doors and refitting jambs with new stock grafted in to allow for lock mortises, and replacing missing flooring.


A little glue and some strips of sandpaper combined with scrap quarter-round molding and you have a suitable rasp-like tool for fitting all those pieces of trim together perfectly.



In the end it turned out to be a rewarding time of productivity and bonding as it was the longest stretch of time I’d spent with my beloved Professor Doctor daughter since she left for college eleven years ago.  You cannot place a value on that other than to say it was priceless.

I probably could have made some pretty good furniture with the setup.  And all it cost was about $60.

Workshop Minimalism in the Heartland III

Learning to “do without” a full set of tuned up tools was in a sense liberating.  It’s not the way I want to work much of the time, but it is a great challenge on occasion, and this was one of these occasions.  It made me reflect on Howark Roark’s designing The Courtland, a project he accepted not because of any philanthropy but rather for the mere challenge of the task.

Thus the week spent in The Heartland was especially invigorating and rewarding because we were able to accomplish so much with so little.

As I wrote last time I acquired a minimal toolkit, some of which needed some tuning.

Using the backsplat slab I was able to employ a pack of wet-or-dry sandpaper from my daily trips to the hardware store to get the edge tools sharpened to accomplish whisper thin shavings.  Laying various grits of abrasive belt on the slab, or wrapping it with wet-or-dry sandpaper I got to darned near perfect edges.


I first got the bed and sides of the block plane flattened with an 80 grit belt, then used the same set up to establish a cutting angle for the iron.


Moving quickly up the ladder of grits to 600 the result was a superb small plane in about 15 minutes.

The Fat Max chisels took even less time, about two minutes apiece.  They started out near-perfect flat on both the backs and the bevel, so a few seconds with each of the 240, 400, and 600 grits resulted in mirror surfaces that worked brilliantly.

I had never done much of the sandpaper sharpening before, but I am absolutely convinced of its utility after this week.  I intend to explore this application more in the future, perhaps even fabricating a block for use in my carpenter’s tool kit.  I recently discovered my local hardware store in Maryland carried 1500 grit paper and the auto body supplier carries up to 4000 grit, so it might be possible for me to dispense with sharpening stones altogether at some point in the future.


The final tool needing the restorative touch was the unnamed and unmarked, but very sharp, back saw I got at the Goodwill for a couple of bucks.  It was rusty and grimy, but mostly it was missing two of the nuts.  The blade just flopped in the handle.  Another trip to the hardware store resulted in my returning with two new binding posts and a tapered reamer to kiss the holes in the blade allowing for a reassembly and high performance.  A little cleaning with abrasive pad and oil completed the process, and it was put to work.