Making Chopsticks at Bridge City Toolworks

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In preparation for a recent trade show in China, John Economaki of Bridge City Toolworks had a nutty idea for a gimmick in his booth: a planing jig for making chopsticks.

As it turned out, people lined up at the show for a chance to make perfectly planed chopsticks at the show.

“I hit on something very deep in the Chinese culture,” John says during a chat in his office. “I have never seen so much joy in my entire life.”

Kids, women and adults of all ages used his little tabletop jigs to make the perfect tapering sticks that end in a petite tapered octagon. Then they used one of the Bridge City Jointmaker Pros to saw a pyramid shape at the top.

What started as a fun idea – almost a bit of a joke – is headed into production. The Chopstick Master is, like all Bridge City tools, a cunning invention from Economaki’s restless mind. And after he told me about the jig over dinner last week, I knew I had to stop at his Portland, Ore., office on my way to the airport to make a pair of chopsticks.

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The chopsticks start as a pair of straight, square-section sticks, padauk in this case. Then they are wedged into the jig to bend the wood on a diagonal into a shallow S-shape.

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Why? Because of the block plane used in the jig. Thanks to the skewed, slightly bent chopstick you can use the entire width of the iron while planing the chopstick to its initial tapered shape. That reduces sharpening.

Also cool are the plane’s two depth skids that poke out from the side of the plane like a catamaran. The skids capture the plane on a track and control the cutting action. When the plane stops cutting, you are done with that operation.

It is very difficult to mess up the process. Here’s what it’s like:

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You number each face of the stick one through four and wedge the stick in the jig with No. 1 facing up. Plane face No. 1 and then plane face No. 2 in the same manner.

Then you turn a knob on the side of the jig to change the pitch of its bed and plane sides No. 3 and 4. You have just created a perfect tapered stick.

Then you drop the stick into the V-shaped notch in the jig, which then shows the four corners of the chopstick to the plane. Then you plane away and create a tiny, perfect octagon on the last four inches or so of the chopstick.

You are done. Time elapsed (with instruction from the maker) about 5 minutes. I then cut a small pyramid shape on the top of each chopstick using the Jointmaker Pro and broke the edges with a small piece of fine sandpaper.

Totally brilliant.

If you are interested in being notified about the development of the Chopstick Master, go to ChopstickMaster.com. Economaki is working out the details of manufacturing and pricing – but I think you are going to be amazed at the price (including the plane). I’ll get one –to have it at my next dinner party and try to hook a few people into woodworking.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Planing Mill Owners’ Tribulations

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Talking with a lumber dealer, a short time ago, about dressed flooring, ceiling, etc., and the awful time he had to get his lumber planed right, set me to thinking of the time when as foreman of a planing mill in New York City I used to smile and look pleasant, when receiving some such message as this, delivered at the same time as the lumber, either by the truck driver or as an N. B. on the mill ticket:

“Please run this lot with very slow feed, as the customer is very particular;” or, “put on new, sharp knives so as to run this maple or oak very, very smooth, as any defects in planing will have to be thrown out;” or, “any piece of lumber in this lot that you think is not good or will not plane perfectly smooth, please lay out, and send word to the office so we can send others to replace them,” or, “if any piece is too thin to hold the thickness, lay it out,” and other requests of like nature.
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Pleasant Pursuits

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Perhaps in no branch of our manufactures has England become more famous than in that of those prime necessaries of the workman—his tools. According to an old-fashioned saying—we were almost saying saw—”Tools are half the battle.” It might be said three-fourths.

And from the earliest days, when one in boyhood frequented workshops and watched with insatiable curiosity the carpenter turning off those beautiful silky-looking curls, the shavings, it used to be with pride that the men compared their planes, saws, and chisels—talked of their merits; how this or that was a capital bit of stuff; and almost invariably one saw stamped in on the blades of these tools the word “Moseley,” or “Moseley and Simpson.”
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The Dominatrix Polissoirs

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Making polissoirs (a wood polishing tool) from local materials during a woodworking class is always fun, though it isn’t always easy. Getting the broom corn for the core of the tool is usually a snap. Hose clamps we can usually scare up. But then we need wax and something to wrap everything up tightly.

This week at the Guild of Oregon Woodworkers we made Roubo-style try squares and then made a couple polissoirs to finish them.

I conned a student to drive me to a local grocery store where we found a whisk broom and an assortment of hose clamps. The store didn’t have beeswax, however, so we had to buy paraffin. And to wrap it all up I grabbed some black 3M duct tape.

After cinching the broom corn tight with the hose clamps I mummified the thing with the duct tape, which was shockingly shiny. And when paired with the silvery metallic hose clamps, it had sort of dominatrix look (not that I know what that really looks like, Lucy).

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Then we had to melt the wax to charge the polissoir. But there wasn’t a working microwave (or so we thought). So we did what any self-respecting group of nutjobs would do. We tried to melt the wax in a Coke can we perched on a Subaru’s engine block.

The Subi’s engine was surprisingly efficient, however, and the wax remained solid after 20 minutes. Another student found a sort-of-working microwave, and so he started nuking the paraffin. In the meantime, a third student remembered he had a gas camping stove in his car and brought it into the shop.

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We fired it up and within two minutes we had all the hot liquid wax we could desire.

Melted paraffin migrates readily into the broom corn of a polissoir, but it doesn’t create the same sort of tool as when you use beeswax. I need to do some more experiments and reading to explain myself. But the bottom line is that it worked fine. It was just a different experience.

As always, we gave away the polissoirs to the students after everyone polished up their squares. By the way, Oregon oak (Quercus garryana) takes very well to the burnishing from a polissoir.

— Christopher Schwarz

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The Japanese Toolbox (Finally)

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When I got the privilege to measure an antique Japanese toolbox in 2013, I knew I had to build a reproduction. I just didn’t know it was going to take me two years to get around to making this simple but beguiling box.

The first problem was the hardware. I spent entirely too much time searching all over the world for manufactured dome-head nails to secure the toolbox’s finger joints. I came very close to finding the right nails in France and then again somewhere out in the desert. But there was always something fouling the works – the size of the head, the length of the shaft or the raw material (silver is probably a poor choice).

So I conned John Switzer at Black Bear Forge to make the nails and pulls. Note to self: Start with a blacksmith next time.

The wood was the next hurdle. Logically, I should build the toolbox using pine or cypress – a lightweight and strong wood that is easy to get. But I want the venti experience, so I started looking for Port Orford cedar. A fair amount of this stuff is exported to Japan for woodworking and building temples, so that would be a nice wood to use.

As I’m in the Pacific Northwest this week, I decided to spend a morning hunting up some Chamaecyparis lawsoniana in the Portland, Ore., area. After about 10 phone calls, I found a yard that had some. When I got there, I found they had three short boards. Three short boards that were split, warped and pecked with loose knots. I call this stuff: firewood.

Luckily, the yard had some gorgeous, dry-as-a-popcorn-fart vertical-grain Douglas fir. So I purchased an 16’-long clear stick of this wood as a backup plan. The antique toolbox I measured was quite possibly made from Douglas fir, according to the people who studied the box along with me.

The employees at the lumberyard were nice enough to cut the stock up into manageable chunks for my rental car so I could ship it back to Kentucky.

Mission accomplished. Or perhaps not. More on this story on Monday.

— Christopher Schwarz

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An Unusual Invention

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The novel firearm shown in the accompanying engraving consists of a short barrel attached to a base plate that slides upon two rods projecting from the handle. The barrel is pressed forward by spiral springs which surround the guide rods. The handle or stock is similar to a saw handle, and contains a lock or spring mechanism which throws the needle forward into the cartridge when the trigger is pulled.royals_patent

The recoil which follows the discharge of the weapon is taken up by the spiral springs, thus relieving the hand from the shocks which generally follow the discharge of firearms.

This weapon would seem to be especially useful in fighting at close quarters, as in the case of a marine engagement. Its large caliber enables it to carry formidable and effective ammunition, while its length is such that it can be used when rifles and ordinary pistols are useless. Either shot or shells may be used.

This firearm was recently patented by Mr. Jarvis Royal, of Rochelle, Ill., from whom further information may be obtained.

Scientific American – January 25, 1879

—Jeff Burks

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Keeping Tools

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Keep your tools handy and in good condition. This applies everywhere, and in every place, from the cobbler on the bench to the greatest mechanical establishment in the world, and in no place is it more necessary than in wood-working concerns. Every tool should have its exact place as much as a note in an organ, and should always be returned to its place when not in use.

Having a chest, or any receptacle with a lot of tools thrown into it promiscuously, is just as bad as putting the notes into an organ without regard to their proper place. If a man wants a wrench, chisel or hammer, it’s somewhere in the box or chest, or somewhere else, and the search begins. Sometimes it is found—perhaps sharp, perhaps dull, maybe broken; and by the time it is found he has spent time enough to pay for several tools of the kind wanted.
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