Toolapalooza 2018 – Calling Captain Ahab…

For many years I have been on the hunt for a most rare quarry, the Emmert Metalworker’s Vise.  As a life-long aficionado of Emmert K1 Patternmaker’s Vises, well, maybe not my whole life but certainly since I joined the Maddox Foundry pattern shop in 1978, I have found the K1 to be something close to a perfect woodworking vise.  By that time Emmert Company was long gone but Kindt-Collins, the foundryman’s supply house, was manufacturing them.  I was so taken by the vises in the pattern shop that I checked into buying the K-C version.  The price of almost $2k in 1980 scared me off but I was indeed hooked.

Fortunately in 1982 I was able to buy a pair of vintage K1s at a price a married college student could afford.  They sat unused for three years until I finished school, got a job, a house with a basement shop, and a workbench to put one on.  This has been my constant woodworking companion ever since.  (My second one waits forlornly for a bench of its own.)  As I have often said to my well-established woodworking friends, “If you have never used an Emmert K1 don’t start now because you will be black-and-blue from kicking yourself for waiting so long.”

I am ashamed to admit that I never learned of the Emmert “Tool Maker’s and Metal Worker’s Vises” a/k/a “The Metal Hand” until a decade or so ago.  If Emmert’s woodworking vise was this good, how fantastic must be their metal working vise?  I was now on the hunt for this great beast.

Occasionally they would come up at auctions or on-line, but the prices, like that of the Kindt-Collins K1, were enough to retard but not diminish my ardor.  It seemed as though every time the prices would eventually zoom into the stratosphere and I would have to drop out.  A few years ago at Donnelly’s I hung in on the bidding long past my point of reason and still the hammer price was twice as much as when I dropped out.

As a profound gesture of friendship and condolence in the aftermath of my dashed hopes, my friend Jersey Jon presented me with a consolation prize, an equally rare but far less expensive (I hope) product brochure for the vise.  It remains a treasure in the Archive of Don.

With high hopes I noticed one in this year’s MJD Summer Auction catalog and the chase was on.  I knew from the listings that this item would be on the block at lunch time on Saturday.  I located and examined the vise almost immediately on arriving on Thursday, and from that point on all the auction activity pointed to lot 26XX (at the moment I cannot recall the number).

When the moment was approaching our little band of tool mavens quieted down in anticipation of the lot number.  Once it began it was soon clear that only one other bidder was fervently interested.  As fate would have it he and I both had the same secret limit and fortunately I got there first!  The auctioneer sang out the next increment several times then said “Sold to number 78.”  With whoops and back slaps I was the winner, and unlike Captain Ahab I was going to live with my conquest.

Afterwards we loaded it into the CRV with some effort.  At home I wrestled it to the ground, not much of a contest as it weighs more than a hundred pounds.  The trick was avoiding smashing my toes or aggravating my back.  Once on the hand truck it was a piece o’ cake to wheel it into the shop, and with caution I hoisted it onto my bench to remove the grease and grime.

And there it sits to this moment, awaiting a plan to mount it, perhaps on a new bench.

In hindsight I wonder if landing this beast after such a long quest will diminish my enthusiasm for attending tool gatherings like the one where I obtained it.

Nah, that’s just crazy talk.

But like Jameel Abraham once quipped to me, “Why couldn’t we collect thimble boxes instead of cast iron anchors?”

With Apologies To Ray Bradbury

Something wondrous this way comes.

Thanks to months and years of work on the web site new things are beginning to appear, with even more to come.  Other things which do not show are also manifest, including moving the entire website to both a new server and a new software platform.  This require Webmeister Tim to migrate almost 4GB worth of files then checking each one to make sure it did its part.

The Don’s Barn Store is now up and running!  Well, we think it is running but have not yet had any new orders so I cannot promise that for sure.  But the Store Page is up.


For now it has a few of my finishing and video products but will expand to include rare First Edition Roubo prints, registration for classes at The Barn, links to my books, and new finishing products as they come on line.

I have begun inputting information and maintaining the calendar of Barn Classes, my presentations, and other events that might be of interest to you.  It will become my routine and habit to keep this as up-to-date as I can.  This stuff is still not natural to me so please bear with me as I ease into the 20th Century.

The Comments function has been up for several weeks now, and is thriving(?).  About 99% of the Comments are spam that the filter catches.  I had no idea there were so many folks thinking I was interested in fake Air Jordans, Russian girlfriends, and support for updating site content with vague and breathless praise for the site while offering new content for only a dollar an article!  Call me skeptical if not downright suspicious.

The immediate future holds the revival of the Shellac Archive (I have already scanned thousands of pages with many more thousands to go), uploading of all my articles from the past few years (at least the two dozen or so I can find), and the initial postings of our nascent video enterprise.  I’m even thinking about vlogging once I can figure out how to capture and edit video snippets from the workshop.  Maybe if I get far enough along with my furniture conservation thriller novel I can start serializing that as well.

And the blog will be featuring new arcs as metalworking, toolmaking, and furniture making grow in prominence at The Barn, and the foundry and machine shop all come more on-line.  The visitorship stays stubbornly loyal at an average of about 375 hearty souls a day (I check my stats on occasion without actually understanding them well, and my traffic this year is identical to that of my first year of 2014 so at least it is not declining).  Thank you all for following the adventure on the homestead.

Stay tuned.

Toolapalooza – Penultimate Prize

There were two individual tools on my “gotta bid on these” radar at the MJD summer auction.  The “pretty one” was a small brass shooting plane.

Patrick’s plane

After seeing Patrick Edwards’ petite shooting plane he used for parquetry at the Williamsburg conference this year I have been itching to get one.  (I will almost certainly make one myself, but that is a topic for another set of blog posts).  Here was a sweet little one that was pretty clearly custom-made, perhaps even user made.

The auction estimate seemed pretty low, so I was interested on checking it out.  Very, very nice, great lines, pleasant heft, a nice Sorby iron.  I was hooked.  Since it was being sold very late on Saturday, and Mrs. Barn and I were going to visit friends in Rochester NY for dinner and the evening I would not be around for the bidding festivities.  Hyperkitten volunteered to bid for me and I told him my limit.

Late that afternoon he sent me a message on my newfangled smart phone thingy that I had indeed won that particular prize!  A week later it arrived at the PO box and I had a chance to look it over really well.

It was pretty clear that the plane had never been made operable.  There were no wear marks on the body that would suggest any real use, but the kicker was that the Sorby iron had never been sharpened.  Its back had been “ground” on a flat waterwheel but had never been taken any further in the process.  I took about a half hour and got it singing like Caruso.  It is darned near perfect for my needs in cranking out French parquetry or other small-scale work.

The handle of figured walnut had been broken and repaired, albeit poorly.  The repair seems to be holding firm so I may wind up just re-sculpting it a tad and leaving well-enough alone.  Oh, and I think a nice knurled pressure screw is called for.

I noticed with some amusement that the maker had stamped his name on two places of the handle; A. Williams.   we are probably only distantly related.

Desk Finishing – I

With the construction finally completed it was time to dive into the part of the project that had no down side, the part where it was all fun all of the time — finishing.  In my back-and-forth with the client I decided to shoot for a non-filled-grain look, a general tonal consistency, and with craqueleure underneath the the final surface.  In short my overall strategy for the process was to have the desk looking like it was “old but well-cared-for,” looking new was not part of the plan, nor was “antiquing” nor “distressing.”

Since the desk was small and convoluted I intended to finished almost all of the pieces prior to final glue-up.  So the full glory of it was not revealed until nearly the last step when all the pieces were put together.  Finishing each piece separately required a careful masking of all the surfaces that were glued together in that assembly.

The first step was to lay down a few seal coats of garnet shellac brushed on in three or four applications of a one pound cut.  This allowed me to get a good sense of how I needed to shift the visual coloration and tone of the pieces to bring them into harmony.  I would make no attempt to make each and every piece identical to the other, that was nonsensical given the variety of grain directions, etc. involved, but simply to bring everything closer en suite.

For the most part the starting point for this shifting was accomplished via the addition of dyes to the garnet shellac being brushed on.  I am loathe to employ chemical stains to bare wood as part of the finishing exercise; they are simply too difficult to control for an equal outcome when the starting points are different, and when they do not behave their reversal (removing the surface of all the wood) induces foul language in the shop.

By building the finish with dyed coatings the depth of the wood’s beauty soon emerged forcefully.

I built the finish steadily, five coats becoming ten, then fifteen.  I smoothed all of the flat surfaces by scraping with razor blades and the curved surfaces with pumice pads and before long I was ready for the home stretch.

But the real magic of final blending of the coloration, along with imparting craqueleure, was achieved in the next step.

Stay tuned.

Workbench Wednesday — Bench #3, (2005?) A Sjoberg Salvage Operation

The bench today

Sometime in the mid-aughts I came into possession of a raggedy c. 1970s Sjoberg workbench that was slated for the dumpster.  It was a rickety old thing that needed to be pretty much disassembled and reconstructed to make work properly.  Before, it wobbled so bad it was probably an injury magnet, afterwards it was stout and sturdy.  I eventually added another four inches to its height by simply bolting on some mondo skids.  Since it was still unusably light I then bolted the skids to the floor and now it is one of my high-value work stations for when I am doing conservation projects for smaller decorative objects or gunsmithing, engraving, marquetry or carving.

Some of the accouterments I have added to it include a tilting fret saw table that fits perfectly into the end vise, and a swiveling ball vise made from a pair of toilet flanges, a duckpin bowling ball (it’s a Maryland thing) and a hot melt glue gun and wood scraps.  This resides on the floor underneath the bench when not in use.  I’ve also got a stereo-microscope sitting there for those times when I need it, and a pair of Gerstner tool boxes filled with the tools I need for these projects on a shelf above it and a small drawer unit with carving and engraving tools sitting on the shoulder vise end.  It is light enough to move aside easily whenever I need that vise.

The bench was one of the very first things I brought to the barn, probably within the first year after it was enclosed, in ’09 or ’10.   It was the closest thing I had to a functioning and available workbench and it arrived even before there was the final flooring underfoot.


Being pretty light it was moved around frequently until the spaces took shape.  It finally wound up in a perfectly fitted niche just inside the entry door, adjacent to the propane wall furnace.

It is not the perfect bench, but the purchase price was perfect and with a bit of finessing it has turned into a valuable contributor to the shop’s functionality.  Were my life situation different I could probably make a decent living with this as my only bench.

Toolapalooza – Off-Books Booty

At the annual MJD summer tool extravaganza the action of acquiring tools at the auction itself is only one of the many attractions.  The tool-dealers flea market gets larger every year and I always manage to get a few treats.



This year it was a pair of screwdriver tips for a brace, always a useful thing to have more of, and a vintage Panavise.


Even better is the extravaganza and fellowship if the cluster of friends I sit with, often kibitzing about the tools being sold and reviewing each others’ purchases.   Here is my pal JohnH and a pile of wooden body planes he got for a buck or two apiece.

I am particularly fortunate in both the tool acquisition and fellowship aspects to sit alongside tool merchant extraordinaire Josh Clark of  He comes with a detailed “Buy” spreadsheet and generally has great success as he is buying good quality “user” tools for his customers to purchase from him at a very modest price.  Any while he is aggressively obtaining his winter inventory we get to scour his purchases and make side deals with him.  It is especially superb when he gets a large lot of boxes with stuff he doesn’t want.  The the horse trading begins in earnest.

Here’s my haul from Hyperkitten this year.

I’ve always liked “take down” framing squares since they can fit into a low-rider tool tote.  I bought one many years ago and Josh was happy to pass this one along to me.

One of the lots that Josh was watching carefully was a small box chock full of Yankee drill bit sets.  I find Yankee drills to be an integral element in almost every work setting and have them scattered about in numerous locations.  The problem is that the littlest bits you use the most are the ones that also break the most.  Once the box was in his hand I bought three complete bit sets from Josh.

One of the tools that is often in abundance is the venerable wood screw, something Josh has no interest in due to the fact that they are so bulky and the demand is too low to commit space to them.  Here is a pile that he just gave to me since I use them quite a bit.

In separate lots were a very nice Ulmia horned toothing plane and an unmarked so-so scrub plane.  SOLD!

This lovely little wire and sheet metal gauge was identical to one in Henry Studley’s tool cabinet, and I did not already have one exactly like it, so…

Josh brought this one to my attention and it was so beautifully detailed I snapped it up.  The French  wrest for setting saw teeth is simply a spectacular thing.

Finally, Josh found a fairly good number of plow plane irons amongst his treasure that were too boogered up to be reclaimed without extraordinary effort,  and since I can use them in re-purposed applications he handed them over to me.

The final off-book delights were fellowship dinners with friends old and new.  One night the lovely toolaholic Christine reserved the upper floor of an excellent local restaurant for our crew, and the next night was the annual pig roast at the auction.  A grand time was had by all.

Black Swan Update – Solar

As we last left our adventure the solar system control module had been declared to have some as-yet undefinable hardware failure and the unit was returned to the manufacturer for repair.  They diagnosed the problem as ants getting inside the unit and shorting out the main circuit board.  I authorized replacement of the damaged component and two weeks later the unit arrived back here.  I was about to leave for a couple weeks worth of travel but quickly reinstalled the unit just to see the system working again.

It did not.

the original installation in 2011

I double checked and confirmed I had wired in the system exactly as it had been done originally and even had the detailed photo to work from.  I spent many, many hours corresponding with the EE who designed the systems and the different EE who helped me install it.  I spent many hours on hold with the tech line and was eventually told with metaphysical certitude that the system could not have been working uneventfully for seven years because the original wiring scheme could not, would not, and did not work according to their engineers.  I sent them the installation photos and asked them to explain how the system had been working fine for all these years if this wiring schematic was as wrong as they said.  I was told that it had never been working given the wiring diagram and photos they saw.  Apparently I have been the direct recipient of a Divine miracle.

When I asked them again to explain my harvesting electrons with this system for seven years they basically hung up on me.

Then I was traveling.  On my return I made the wiring changes that the manufacturer said were necessary for the unit to function.

It still did not work.

After more hours of painstaking troubleshooting on the charge controller wiring circuits, checking everything from the solar panels through the in-line fuses, the underground cable, the system master controls all the way to the buried copper grounding rod with a meter several times to make sure all the circuits were functioning as required, the unit would not power up.  Again I corresponded and spoke at length with the EE who installed this unit and who directed my efforts (he gave me many very specific tasks to check the current between point A and point B, etc.) and in the end we were mystified.

Once again I called the manufacturer’s tech line, and after very little conversation with me but much discussion at their end they decided that my unit had not been repaired properly.  I was told it was probably something simple like forgetting to plug in the ribbon to the display module.  This makes no sense to me unless the fan is also hooked up to the same display module ribbon as NOTHING happened whenever I diverted power to the unit.  Before this episode, even when the unit would not “wake up,” whenever I threw the breaker for the unit there would be a brief burst of fan activity in the load dump function, but this time, nothing.  I remained bewildered as I had been assured the reconditioned unit had undergone two hours of testing, but how could they test it for two hours in this condition?

Whatever the case they sent me a new shipping label and I returned it to them.  Now I wait again.


Designer Meets Tiny Space Meets Low Budget Meets Plywood

“Calling Howard Roark, calling Mr. Roark.”

Forty years ago I was an aspiring architecture student, and that combined with my years in preserving artistic and historic resulted in  life-long interest in design.  On the occasional evenings when I am too tired to read or write I might veg out on construction, design or “tiny house” videos on youtube.  Although many of the latter strike me as attempts to extend or recapture a pre-adolescent lifestyle by the owners who appear to have few possessions (no room), kids (ditto), or jobs requiring their physical presence or labor, a great many of the projects reveal astounding innovation in space management or construction/design, a vocabulary I keep in mind for our small home.

If I remember my Ayn Rand novels correctly this challenge led her heroic architect Howard Roark to accept the surreptitious task of designing the Courtland Towers although a rival architect was getting all the credit. All Roark wanted was to solve the problem of high density housing that was well designed and well constructed, inexpensively.

I could not help but think of that when I came across this video.   I think this solution to a similar problem is ingenious and I would love to see it in person.  It highlights the creative responses to the matter of ultra-high density living in New York City, a/k/a Dante’s Seventh Circle of Hell.  As much as I admire this design I prefer living someplace where I am so remote I am barely aware of my nearest neighbor.

And shellac ties it all together!

Workbench Wednesday — Bench #2 (1990) Bench Auxiliaries

I was mighty pleased with myself when the bench was finished. It was easy to move, easy to set up and take down, good and sturdy with great clamping. Clearly, I had solved all the problems which led me down this path in the first place. However, a little use of the bench showed me that reality was slightly less idyllic.

Unfortunately, its lightness (55 pounds) which was such an asset in my master plan for the “perfect portable bench” was also a big liability once the bench ceased being mobile and was set up as a work station. The bench was so light I couldn’t really work it hard without moving it or even knocking it over. I had to figure out some way of weighting the bench while in use. My “no loose parts” vision was about to bite the dust.

Fortunately, the solution was as simple as building two thin (approx. 1 1/8″) torsion boxes to serve as shelves resting on the crossbar of the end/leg units on either side of the folding bracket, and which could be attached to the underside of the benchtop when not in use. By putting all my tools and supplies on the shelves, the bench now had enough mass for my use. It still wasn’t heavy enough for general cabinetmaking, but it was more than adequate for restoration.

Then a second problem cropped up. The working height for flat-ish or small objects was great, but setting chairs or case pieces on the bench raised them too high. For these taller pieces I needed a lower work surface which would still fit my ideal of lightness and strength. I could have built a lower version of the bench, but instead tried something different. This time I fabricated a torsion box about the same size as the bench top which would fit on a pair of small, low trestle horses. These trestle horses were made from lighter than normal elements, for example the main components were 1″x 1″ and the crosspieces 3/8″ thick.

Some minor modifications to generally employed designs yielded another light, strong and stable unit. By making the top bar of the horses removable, each post of the trestle could then become a tenon. Constructing the torsion box in such a manner that the bottom side had openings to function as extensions to the mortises already incorporated into the grid fitting the tenons of the sawhorse posts, the pieces fit together as a small worktable suited perfectly for holding taller pieces at a more comfortable height. While this new unit was not as “neat” as the workbench, it solved the problem. It also provided more flexibility than simply building another, lower table/bench.

This saga does not end here as I continued working on newer iterations of the concept, but those episodes will be recounted in future Workbench Wednesdays in a few months.

Next week – A derelict salvaged from the trash heap that was transformed into a little jewel.

Toolapalooza Harvest – Auction Lots

Except for two specific items that deserve their own posts, my acquisitions at this year’s MJD auction were sparse.  I bid on the occasional items but only if it seemed a particularly good and opportune acquisition for a deep discount price, and dropped out of the bidding early once the prices approached fair.  I did get a very few things that were cheap and intriguing.

My first purchase was a lot of ebony pieces including a smoothing plane and several navigation parallels.  The plane is complete and in pretty good shape, I will brink it up to snuff soon.  The parallels will be re-purposed for applications yet to be determined.

A second plane was this odd and huge solid rosewood Japanese plane.  Admittedly this was simply a whim, the price was so low I could not pass it up.  It weighs a ton, it will be like using a concrete block with a sharp iron.  The current iron is pretty much no-account so I will cast around for another.

The final small auction purchase was this unusual pair of a sash and cope pair.  Unspectacular, but again cheap.