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.


Image via

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.

Indispensable Gragg Chair Tools – The Ordinaries

In addition to the peculiar tools critical to building a Gragg chair there is a selection of ordinary hand tools that come to play in the exercise.

When beginning the actual assembly of the upright chair one of the challenges is to get all these parts balanced with the same splay angles, so bevel squares are the quickest solution.  I keep a large one and a small one handy.

It seems that my mid-sized Japanese saw gets used all the time, for one thing or another.

While building a Gragg chair is not a precision undertaking there is still a fair bit of measuring and layout, so a 6-inch engineer’s scale is never far from reach.  I generally use mine for laying out the half-blind dovetails for joining the seat slats to the seat rails.  Concurrently a couple pair of dividers are just the tool needed for spacing those elements.

I keep a couple of 4-inch movable squares handy for general layout work, and they seem to get picked up quite a bit.

I use a block plane when finishing the front seat rail, in combination with the previously mentioned rasps and spokeshaves.

An eggbeater drill comes in mighty handy when pre-drilling holes for the screws that are used throughout the joinery, and when adding the steel pins in the mortise-and-tenon joints of the rungs.

When it comes time to countersink and finish off the joinery screws I use my brace and the requisite bits frequently during those stages of assembly.  I use old fashioned slotted flat head screws in the final assembly so I make sure to have those screwdriver bits for the brace.  Since there is a lot of assembly-and-disassembly in the early staged of the putting-together I find a battery powered drill the be irreplaceable for sinking and removing the deck screws I use for the task.

And, it’s always good to have a small hammer and a mallet, along with a handful of spring clamps.

An Exellent Series On Liquid Hide Glue

Salko Safic has been covering some important territory regarding liquid hide glue over on his always interesting shop blog, culminating the series with a brief but enlightening video.    If the topic interests you — and it should — go give it a look.


Last Spring while wandering around the woods above the barn I made a surprising discovery, the hook and tip from a logger’s cant hook, the tool used to turn and manipulate logs on the ground.  I have no idea of the vintage nor heritage of these tool components, they were muddy and rusty but still beefy enough to be sound and perhaps reused.  I’ve only been harvesting trees for less than a decade and these tool parts were certainly not mine; the previous log harvesting was four decades ago, long before I was on the scene.

I brought them back to the barn and stuck them in my “tool projects” box.

When I began setting-up to work firewood again a couple weeks ago in the aftermath of clearing the trees around the log barn, and not coincidentally opening the sky to provide copious sunshine for Mrs. Barn’s little orchard and garden adjacent to the stone wall, I recalled this earlier find.  There was no handle remaining for the cant hook parts so I checked with the hardware store.  They did not have anything suitable for use.  Instead of ordering one I checked my lumber stash and Surprise! found the perfect scrap of vintage white oak to make a new handle.  The rough stock was no account, having the live-edge running the full length of the narrow 10/4 board that I probably saved because I could not bring myself to throw away a piece of wood that “could be used for some project, some time.”  Happily that time had come.

Even though I already had two log-handling tools, one a standard cant hook to roll a log over, the other a timberjack to roll the log over and lift it up off the ground for easier chainsawing, I decided to make a new handle for the cant hook parts and thus have one in reserve.  Adding to the tool inventory is pretty much always an irresistible enticement.


I sawed out the blank for the handle and set to working on it, starting with the tapered end to match the metal fittings.  A drawknife, spokeshave and rasp accomplished this in short order.  Then I just started wailing away on the blank to make it rounded and swelled or tapered as needed for comfortable use.  The hours spent with hand tools, working hard and even working up a good sweat in so doing, goes in the WIN column in my book.  In a couple of hours, with my hands and arms tired from the exertion, the handle began to take shape.  Actually I was working the metal spokeshave so vigorously that I had to wear gloves to protect my hands from the heat of friction.  No kidding.  Even with a sharp blade and a waxed sole the tool got really hot.

As I was extracting the desired handle shape from the rough stock the pile of long, sinuous shavings grew repeatedly underfoot.  In their own way detritus like this (and from rendering Gragg chair parts) is treasured in our little Shangri-la as it provides perfect tinder for rejuvenating the wood stove every morning.  Being an early-riser Mrs. Barn relishes being able to deposit a handful of these shavings on the bed of coals from the overnight fire along with some kindling and gets the fire going in just a minute or two while she sits and reads with a cup of tea as the sun is coming up.

Put another check mark in the WIN column.

As I approached the final shape and size of the new handle I affixed the hook and serrated tip on it so I could actually hold it and mock-use it to get the size and shape just the way I wanted it.  A few more minutes of shaving a bit here, a smidge there, and it was ready to be put to work.  The only thing left was to paint the handle fluorescent orange like the rest of my woodlot tools (to find them much easier on the work site).

A vintage tool rehabilitated and added to the working inventory of the barn without having to reach for my wallet?  A big WIN.

So, an ordinary discovery deep in the woods yields a Win, Win, Win opportunity.

Winnowing and Strategerizing (sorta “Workbench Wednesday-ish”)

The events of the past several months, including Mrs. Barn and me losing our remaining parents and my becoming closer to 70 than 60, are leading me on a path of deliberate winnowing of my shop and barn contents.  Given that my sister is still going through my mom’s stuff — and she lived her last years in a one room “mother in law” apartment with my brother and sister-in-law — and the literal tons of belongings in my father-in-law’s four bedroom, two car garage house with a large back yard where he lived for 59 years, I am determined to reduce my material possession burden to my heirs as much as possible.  Since my mom died at 103 I may have some time to get it all resolved, which is a good thing when there are 7,000 square feet and 70+ acres in the discussion.

Other contributors to this long-term process are the realizations that barn-based workshops will not have the prominence that I once thought would be true, and given my current set-up on the fourth floor I really do not need a second floor classroom outfitted with a perimeter of workbenches (I do however still use that space mostly for development of the ripple molding cutter).  Also I recognize that at some point in time life in the mountains would just become too hard physically, and I would see the barn in my rearview mirror.  Not any time soon, but it is inevitable in 10, or 15, or 20 years.  One small step we are taking to delay that day as long as possible is to try to find someone who can execute most of the mowing and bush-hogging tasks around the homestead, but when you live in the least populous county east of the Mississippi River it can be a challenge to find someone to work for you.

One of my upcoming tasks will be winnowing the workbench inventory.  Do I really need eight workbenches in my own workspace?  Of course not.  So, I will begin reducing that particular footprint almost immediately and there are definite “Workbench Wednesday” implications.

The first of these will be to replace my first workbench built for the space, the timber planing beam, with a low bench of the Jonathan Fischer/Roman/Estonian variety.  Since completing my French Oak Roubo Project bench I have had no need for the planing beam so it will be resawn and joined to become the slab for that bench.  It will occupy roughly the same space but serve a more immediate need as my knees and hips are becoming more troublesome and working while sitting is ever more congenial.

This change will also allow me to construct a standing tool chest to hold a copious inventory of hand tools, to be placed at the end of the low bench where my saw rack and metal hand planes hang on the wall.  Since seeing Walter Wittmann’s cabinet a few years ago I have seen this as a solution to my tool storage problem and now is the time to act on it.  The Japanese tool box will reside where Walter’s large lower drawers are located.

Of the plans for the workshop changes these are two of the three at the top of the list.  The third is to restore my piano-maker’s workbench in order to make it a proper gift for my son-in-law, and move it out of my workspace.  I m still cogitating on the ultimate home for the Studley-ish bench I built for the exhibit.

On top of everything else I have stock for at least another half dozen workbenches still unbuilt, but that may be moved on to other folks with the time, energy, and need that I do not have.  Among these are the gigantic mahogany slab and vintage walnut 6×6 that would result in an eye-popping Roubo bench, a 14/4 curly maple slab already glued up, a stack of oak 10x15s, some 12-foot long 7×15 Douglas Fir timbers…

Stay tuned.