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.

Workshop Minimalism in the Heartland II

Since the “business” side of the trip through The Heartland was finishing based with my presentation to the Groopshop 2015, I failed to bring even a small woodworking tool kit with me.  That oversight will not happen again.  From this point on, whenever I am traveling to an unknown location, by that I mean a place where I have not stashed tools or do not know of the inventory of tools, I will carry a bucket o’ tools.

Once on the ground and our daughter’s house I realized that several days of necessary woodworking would commence.  After conducting an inventory of tools available from my truck tool kit, my daughter’s car tool kit, and my pocket multi-tool etc., an additional small inventory of tools would be necessary.


I visited the closest ACE Hardware, which at one time was the largest ACE Hardware in the country before being surpassed by some larger ones elsewhere.  It was the size of a Wal-mart, and became a daily visit for me.  Since I would be fitting a lot of trim, the first two tools we bought were an Irwin brand ryobi saw and a Fat Max set of chisels, along with a plastic triangular speed square and a nail set.


The saw was a perfect fit for my tasks and the “shop” outfitting, and I have been exceedingly impressed with Fat Max chisels to the point that I own two full sets and some additional chisels too.  I first bought a set when I was doing some rough carpentry, thinking they would be disposable tools I wouldn’t worry about too much if I hit a nail.  Much to my surprise they have turned out to be superb tools, flat and well prepared when they leave the factory.  But, they do need to be sharpened and the hardware store was ill-stocked with sharpening stones I would have bought.  More about that tomorrow.

We next made a stop at a thrift store, where I bought a back saw ($2) and a block of fake marble back splat (0.50) to use as a sharpening surface.  I’ll blog about the saw tomorrow, ditto the block plane we picked up at a yard sale for $2 along with a nice little brace for $3.  One final stop at another antique barn yielded a nice pair of very large wood screws for $5 a piece, along with a large box of washed and folded linen feed sacks for 75 cents apiece (darned near perfect finishing rags!) and a sweet Stanley #7C for $15.  These last two items were unrelated to the commencement of work at the rental house.


An Intriguing Measuring Tool

photo courtesyof Narayan Nayar

photo courtesy of Narayan Nayar

It might be the fact that I am in the midst of what could be called Studley Silly Season, wherein my time and energies are focused entirely on getting the exhibit of the Henry O. Studley Tool Cabinet and Workbench done and over, but it seems that I see everything in the light of what old Henry had in his tool cabinet.  One of his tools was this set of ultra precise measuring calipers (above).


Consider this intriguing micrometer I found in a vintage tool store in Connecticut a couple of years ago, and which I have found a useful addition to my tool kit.  While it is functionally similar to the Starret vernier micrometer Studley had stashed back in his tool cabinet, this one is a more straightforward micrometer system mounted on a movable bar.

cIMG_8759 cIMG_8760

Made in Cranston RI at the Central Tool Co., this is unlike anything I had ever seen before, notwithstanding my years in a foundry/machine shop.


Just something for amusing contemplation on a beautiful spring evening.

Chance Encounters, Camaraderie, and Blinding Insights (or, How To Make A High Angled Smoother In 30 Seconds)

While many artisans are content to work alone, as I am almost all of the time (an mp3 player loaded with podcast lectures and such is about all the social interaction I need during my work day), there are those magical interludes of fellowship around the workbench with a like-minded soul.  Such is the case with my pal Tom, whom I first met by chance at a flea market ten years ago (he was selling, I was thinking about buying). That led to hundreds of Wednesday nights in his first-rate shop where a multitude of tools were sharpened or made, mountains of shavings were made then swept out into the yard, and on occasion, the world’s problems were solved.


Tom even accompanied me frequently on working weekends to the barn, where what we were working on WAS the barn.

Tom visited recently, and is often the case, he tossed out an offhand comment that was a thunderbolt.


While he was making some tapered octagonal legs for a dressing table I had been wrestling with my HO Studley workbench top replica for the upcoming exhibit of the workbench and the accompanying tool cabinet.  The grain of the bench surface, African  “mahogany,” was just being, in the words of my ever foul-mouthed 98 year old mom, “A real stinker.”

Rob in Lawrence KS had offered his helpful observations, namely that I could use a high angled smoother tuned to a fever pitch.  When I mentioned this to Tom with the regretful statement that I did not own such a tool, and that I was going to set things up to make one for myself, he casually remarked that there was a simple way of making a high angled smoother that might serve my purpose.  When I tried it, I had to smack my forehead.  Hard.  The solution was both brilliantly insightful and mindlessly simple and best of all, easy.  Coordinated problem solving like this is what woodworking fellowship is all about.

The solution? why, flipping the blade, of course!


I first tried it on a tiny coffin smoother that I had, which was set up to cut at 49 degrees, but when the blade was flipped the new cutting angle was a bit too steep at 74 degrees.  Yeah, a bit too steep.


I then looked through my collection of bench planes to see which of them might be a good candidate for this modification.  I had a nice little coffin plane with a very shallow angle on the blade bevel.  It is set up to cut at about 45 degrees, and simply by flipping the blade over I got a 62-degree cutting angle.  Not the perfect setup, but way better than I had before.



The new orientation turns the plane from a double iron bevel-down tool into essentially a single iron bevel-up plane.  Yes indeed, I transformed one of my bench planes into a pretty nice high angle smoother in less than 30 seconds.  For zero dollars.


A couple minutes to touch up the blade on my 12000 water stone and the tool began its work.  It wasn’t pulling off long, gossamer wisps, but did I mention I was planing African “mahogany,” a/k/a braided broom straw?


The result in the lower right corner of the image speaks for itself.  Following the smoothing with a bit of scraping yielded an outcome that was acceptable, especially since after the exhibit I will be surfacing the bench top with a toothing plane.  I remain committed to avoiding African “mahogany” in perpetuity, but for this one problem the result is in the right direction.


Tilting Fretsaw Fixture

My friend BillF asked me to post the image and plan of the tilting saw bench I use for cutting marquetry with a jeweler’s fret saw.

tilting bench pin copy

Okay Bill, here they are.  I’ll see if we can get the PDF of the plan on the Writings page.

tilting sawing bench

I think I first saw this tool in a c.1900 book on fretwork, and have since seen it many other places and books.  I made a passel of these at one time, and have used and gifted them for years.

Of Studley Slabs and African “Mahogany”

The slab for the Studley work bench top is all glued up and trimmed to size, and slid off my workbench onto a pair of horses for further ministrations, and just in time as I need my bench space to finish up a large group of sample boards for a luncheon presentation I am making soon for an architectural/decorative arts finishes assembly.


I have a lot of clamps, but not enough for me to affix the final top lamina of the bench in one step, so I first glued on the first half, then a day later the second half.

The slab is a beast, and I would estimate its weight at about 175 pounds.  My version is about 1/8″ thicker than Studley’s, giving me a little bit of room for planing and finishing.  The edges will be installed once the wheel-handled vises are attached for the exhibit, which will turn the top into a 500-pound behemoth.


From this point on I will be planing and finishing the top.  Due to the time and budgetary constraints on my side, I selected something called African “mahogany” as my face laminae over the white oak core.  As I mentioned earlier, it looks beautifully similar to the true mahogany that Studley used for his tool cabinet and work bench, but works like a composite that would be the result of making “wood” out of straw and donkey dung.  It is the nastiest stuff I have ever worked, and I can state with a fair degree of confidence that this will be the first and last project to employ this “wood.”

Planing it is a challenge.  I touched it with my “go to” low angle smoother and got horrific tear out.  That took me back on my heels.  Hmmm.  So, I switched to my favorite toothing plane, and got tear out with the toothing plane as well!    I mean, I have never had tear out with that toother.  I backed off the blade a bit and had some success, and today I will touch up the toothing blade and proceed, but it will be slow even though the surface needs very little work.

The next challenge is to resharpen my smoother to use after the toother, or conversely just tooth it overall and go straight to the scraper for the final surface.


Sty tuned.

Ultra Cheep Lapping Plates

Cosmologists assert that the four phenomena holding the Universe together are 1) strong inter atomic forces, 2) weak inter atomic forces, 3) gravity, and 4) magnetism.  Which shows how little they know, as somehow they overlooked 5) duct tape, and 6) shellac.

What has this got to do with The Barn?

Well, nothing actually, but it does lead me to another fundamental phenomenon of the Universe, namely inertia: a body at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion.  For the purposes of this post Chris Schwarz and Joe McGlynn fall into the latter camp, I in the former.  These two guys seem to be the very definition of peripatetic.  I am, shall we say, more contemplative.  Yeah, that’s the word, contemplative.  (“Lazy” was so much less mellifluous).

One of the things I really like about my studio in the barn is a dedicated sharpening station, and thanks to the inspiration of plane makers Konrad Sauer, Raney Nelson, and Ron Brese, and inventive scrounging genius Mike Siemsen I have long recognized the utility and hence have desired an elegant lapping plate for that work station.  Recently I was at the building recycling center and saw a stack of granite splash boards, probably from a kitchen where the users finally came to their senses and had the granite ripped out in favor of some nice butcher block wood slab counters.


Anyway, I selected two pieces that fit my needs, and they were a whole fifty-cents apiece.  They are 4-inches wide and 24-inches long, which makes them a perfect fit for 4×24 sanding belts for a portable belt sander.  yes, I do own one; I have found no better way to sharpen lawnmower blades.


Using the polished granite surface as my base, and spray adhesive as the binder, I first tore the sanding belt once crosswise, then applied it to the granite.  Voilay!  An instant lapping plate.  Given my two pieces of back splash, I can mount four different grits of sanding belt simultaneously, so regardless of the delicacy of the task I am ready to roll. Or lap, as the case may be.

Upgrading a Machinist’s Lathe

Not too long ago I wrote about the new antique lathe now residing on the main floor of the barn.  My friend Jersey Jon took it on himself to get the beautiful unit tuned and running.  It is good to have friends like that.


One of the things that Jon stressed was the value in using a new power source for the old lathe, and it is a sermon I have taken to heart.  It causes reflection on the fundamentals: to power many kinds of machines, like lathes and milling machines, for example, you need a lot of torque and the ability to alter the speed of the cutting tool.  Hmmm, where to get a simple system of high torque variable speed power source.  Why clothes racks, a/k/a treadmills, of course.


Last month I was downtown at the electronics store and walked by the thrift store for the animal shelter and there it was — an aged treadmill on the porch of the thrift shop.  I asked, and they had no way of knowing whether or not it worked but they wanted it gone.  I made that happen with a small donation.

Back in the shop I also had no way to know if it worked until I made a new key to replace the broken one for the unit, put new batteries in the control panel, and made sure that the breaker switch was set properly.  I got all that done today and turned it on.  Yes indeed, the thing works!


What prompted the precise timing on this was spending a couple of days working down in the machine room/foundry, trying to impose some semblance of order there, as it has been sitting essentially untouched for more than a year.  I’ve got this wonderful Atlas machinist’s lathe, but the drive mechanism has this monstrously huge 3/4 HP motor (literally much larger than a basketball and about 50-60 lbs) and a whole set of pulleys and such that were such a pain to work with.


Depending on my schedule, I hope to swap out the old drive system for the new one by the end of the month (it is not the highest priority at the moment…).  I dismantled and removed the old one this afternoon, so I have passed the tipping point.  I suspect I may start scouring yard sales and thrift stores for more such clothes racks.

Stay tuned.