The Old Workshop at Grumblethorpe

’A peep into the ancient carpenter shop in back of house’ glass negative, photo by Alfred Hand, 24 October 1921. Collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

In 1744 John Wister built a summer house in Germantown, a rural area northwest of  Philadelphia. The house later became the primary residence of the family and was known for its gardens, orchards and farm. When Charles Jones Wister (1782-1865), grandson of John, inherited the property he named it Grumblethorpe. He took the name from ‘Think-I-To-Myself’ a comedy by Edward Nares.

The Historic American Building Survey of 1934 notes, “Charles J. Wister had a taste for mechanics and in 1819, added a frame workshop.”

Composite from Sheets 1 and 2 of the Historic American Buildins Survey, February & March, 1934. Collection of the Library of Congress.

Wister’s workshop was on the second floor of the extension with a loft above. In the photo of the shop you can see the steps in the back left corner leading to the loft.

Portion of Sheet 3, Historic American Building Survey, February 1934. Collection of the Library of Congress.

In the survey drawing of the second floor the workshop addition is at the very top, on the right is an enlargement of the shop. His shop was a generous 26’ by 10’-10’’ with a forge (F) connected to the chimney and a bellows (G) that was positioned below a cupboard.

The lathes (see photo) are under the windows in the back right corner. The cabinetmaker’s bench was likely on the left hand wall (under window #213?).

Exterior of the shop, 1921, photo by Alfred Hand. Library company, Philadelphia.

In 1920, a year before the workshop photo was taken, Jones Wister, great-nephew of Charles, published ‘Jones Wister’s Reminiscences’ with a chapter on his great-uncle. Here are excerpts with a brief description of the workshop:

”…The youngest of his family, born 1782, he early showed desire for learning and excelled at school and in college. He was celebrated as an astronomer, poet, lecturer and skilled mechanic.

Much time was given to his books and philosophical studies. His recreation was found in his workshop, where he had a forge, two turning lathes, and a cabinet-maker’s workbench, together with numerous mechanical tools.

At the last visit I paid my cousin at Grumblethorpe, I asked permission to revisit his father’s workshop, and found it just as I remembered and my great-uncle had left it, everything covered with dust, but intact, as it was sixty or seventh years ago. Nothing had been disturbed. He was to Germantown what the Weather Bureau is to the country. Three times daily he took the temperature, read his barometer, making careful notes, which were regularly published in the Germantown Telegraph, then owned and edited by Philip R. Freas.

He had an observatory, equipped with a telescope, through which he watched the heavens, and upon every clear day, observed the sun crossing the zenith. He issued bulletins of the time, and every clock in Germantown was set by his standard.

…He was a remarkedly versatile genius, for besides all his other accomplishments, he could repair clocks, and many which needed repairs were put into working order by his hands…

I should have taken more interest in my great-uncle’s educational researches, had not his shop possessed greater attractions. The long and short foot lathe, beautiful cabinet-maker’s bench, not to mention the blacksmith’s forge, won my enchanted admiration, and were much more to my taste. For here it was he turned the Wister tops, celebrated among all Germantown boys. These tops were made from dogwood, could not be split, but could split the tops of any playmate opponent, whose top was unlucky enough to be hit.

There are a few men still living today for whom my great-uncle turned a spinning top…He was a merry and humorous old gentleman, and when a new boy would be presented to him would astonish him by asking, “Why is a cranberry tart like a pump handle?” After the boy had puzzled awhile, he would quietly say, “There is no resemblance.”

The Bucks County Historical Society in Doylestown, Pennsylvaia has some of the tops make by Wister, other small items and some of his tools.

In 1820 Wister started a notebook to record his workshop activites and titled it, ‘Various Recipes & Formulae Used in the Shop.’ I believe the notebook is in the Eastwick Collection of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia with no digital copy available. However, in early 2010 an enterprising young intern at the APS posted several photos of items from the Eastwick Collection including this recipe from one of Wister’s notebooks:

Charles Wister was one of the early users of photography in Philadelphia and, according to notations in the APS archive, he took photos of Grumblethorpe. Did he take photos of his workshop? If so, and if they survived, the APS may have them.

Another item from the enterprising intern. A photo by Charles Wister with himself at the front door of the house dated 1860. Collection of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.

Charles J. Wister


What mysteries are waiting in the the various archives holding Charles Jones Wister Sr.’s notebooks and photographs? For now, we have one photograph taken 56 years after Wister died and a sparse account of the workshop that is dated around the same time. I will be sending a note to the Operations Manager for Grumblethorpe to find out what remains in the workshop and possibly get some photos.


Suzanne Ellison

Posted in Historical Images, Workbenches | 11 Comments

The Carpenters, the Wheelwright and the Turner

‘Carpenter’s Workshop’ (1884), charcoal on paper, private collection.

Léon Augustin Lhermitte (1844-1925) was a painter of working people. He was known as a realist and specialized in depicting people working in their homes, in workshops and the fields. As far as I have found, he completed three pieces featuring woodworkers: carpenters (above, featured previously on this blog), a wheelwright and a turner.

Looking at the  ‘Carpenter’s Workshop’ one gets the sense that if you could walk into the scene you would find yourself back in 1884. You would smell fresh wood shavings and wood smoke, hear the conversation between the men and perhaps have a quick greeting tossed your way.

‘The Wheelwright’ or ‘The Old Cartwright and His Wife’ (1897), pastel on paper, private collection.

The wheelwright’s wife sits close to her husband as he works and it is in her figure we see a sign of age, a reminder that there was no retirement. He will work until he no longer able.

‘The Lathe’ (1868), charcoal on paper, Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

The turner, like the wheelwright, has been at his craft for many years. He works in a confined space with his tools just behind him. In concert with the other craftsman he has his chopping block and ax at the ready.

Today I caught up on a few saved entries on the ‘Spitalfields Life’ blog by the Gentle Author. The blog documents daily life in the East End of London. A few days ago there was an  anouncement of the death of the turner, Maurice Franklin, age 98. Mr. Franklin was interviewed for the blog in August 2011 when he was still doing part-time work. You can read his story here.

Mr. Franklin was apprenticed at age 13. When he was interviewed in 2011 he was quoted as saying, “I wake up every day and I stretch out my arms and if I don’t feel any wood on either side, then I know I can get up.” Wise words from a nonagenarian.

Suzanne Ellison

Posted in Historical Images, Workbenches | 10 Comments

A Big Pile of No. 2

I do not have the gene of a hoarder or a collector. The fewer things I own, the happier I am. So for the last eight years, a pile of wood has made me miserable

The following is a cautionary tale for beginning woodworkers about getting stuck with the world’s largest horde of mostly useless scraps. Or, as I called it, my big pile of No. 2.

It started with a phone call from a close friend and colleague. An elderly friend of his with Alzheimer’s was selling his tool collection and all his lumber. Both the husband (who was the tool collector) and his wife were afraid they would get taken advantage of when selling the wood. It was many hundreds of board feet of wide cherry and walnut.

Would I take a look?

It was a three-hour drive, but I agreed to go. I called the elderly man before I went, and he got it in his head that I was going to buy all his wood. I honestly didn’t need a splinter of it, but I rented a truck and made the trip.

The wood filled his entire basement. And, as advertised, it was loads of wide cherry and walnut. The problem was that it had been planed to 3/4” and had warped during the last couple decades. As I sifted through the stacks I realized that most of it was No. 2 common (at best). Lots of sap, knots, unusable grain. About 20 percent of the stack was FAS (firsts and seconds).

The deal was all or nothing for the wood. I wanted to walk away, but I felt sorry for this old couple that was struggling with Alzheimer’s (which my grandmother had), and they really just needed this wood gone. So I made a kind offer.

The wife was insulted. She thought the wood was worth several multiples of what I offered.

They agreed to my price. But it was a miserable day because they thought they were getting screwed. And I knew I was getting screwed.

For the last eight years my friends and I have all picked at this pile of walnut and cherry. If you’ve taken a class at Lost Art Press, you probably have worked with some of my No. 2. I’ve given away lots of it to beginning woodworkers who wanted to make mistakes in inexpensive wood. It’s been used as backboards and interior bits in my case pieces.

Today, I loaded up the last 100 board feet of the stuff into a dumpster. Lucy and I are moving out of our house and above our storefront, and there’s no room for this garbage wood.

Good riddance and – I hope – never again.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Uncategorized | 41 Comments

A Vote of No Confidence

For better or worse, my chairs tend to flirt with stretchers. Should the chair have them or not?

While common sense might dictate that all chairs should have stretchers between their legs for added strength, the historical record disagrees. Early chairs were just as likely to skip the stretchers.

Why? It’s anyone’s guess. Chairs with stretchers are almost certainly more durable. The legs are less likely to come loose when someone kicks them inadvertently or drunkenly. But chairs without stretchers are far easier to repair if a leg does become loose.

Chairs with stretchers are certainly more complex and require additional time to build. But they offer another opportunity for the maker to embellish the chair with turnings, balls and tapers.

Stretchers are a good place to put your feet. But they take a beating from feet and can look like dog crap in short order.

For me, however, stretchers can grant me a good night’s sleep.

This week I’m building a couple of Welsh stick chairs in some crazy curly white oak. This particular design, one I’ve developed through 15 years of flailing, doesn’t use stretchers and looks just fine to my eye. That is, until it doesn’t.

The front legs of this design use a 16° resultant angle to set the legs’ rake and splay. The back legs use a 22° resultant angle. While reaming the front legs I grabbed the wrong bevel gauge. As a result, the front legs are splayed out more than expected. And the legs rake forward more than expected.

When I finished the job, I knew it was wrong. But when I assembled the chairs and put them on the ground, I was happy with the additional rake and splay. It made the chair look rakish and splayish.

I sat on the chairs to see if they were solid. They felt fine, but I asked some friends to sit in the chairs and I watched the legs. They moved too much for my taste. I lost confidence in the chairs as-is.

So I started making stretchers for both of the chairs. This added two hours of work to the job, but it set my mind at ease. It made me wonder: Is this how stretchers were first invented? Perhaps an ancient chair without stretchers flexed just a little too much and the builder thought: I have to put some sticks in there to fix that.

Or not. Whatever.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Welsh Stick Chairs by John Brown | 30 Comments

Round the Corners of a Plane Iron

If the corners of a handplane’s cutter are not supposed to cut wood, then I remove them.

OK, let me put that a different way. Some handplanes are supposed to cut into corners: rabbet planes, shoulder planes, moulding planes and router planes (to name a few). So these planes need cutters with sharp corners so they will cut sharp corners in the wood.

Other planes are supposed to cut surfaces and not leave any sharp corners: bench planes, block planes and scraper planes (to name a few). So these planes need cutters that don’t create sharp corners in the wood – what some call “plane tracks.”

One way to avoid plane tracks is to make the cutting edge curved, such as in a scrub plane or jack plane. Another method is to round over the corners of the iron. My preferred method is to do both. I round over the corners of the plane iron and then sharpen a slight camber in its cutting edge.

The combination of these methods greatly improves the way the wood looks after I plane it.

So how to you round over the corners? After I grind an iron, I remove the corners on a diamond stone. You can use any stone (or sandpaper). The diamond stone is simply more durable than a waterstone or sandpaper.

After rounding the corners, I hone the iron and put considerable pressure on the corners to curve the cutting edge and blend my edge into the newly rounded corners.

There are other ways of accomplishing the same goal. And I’m sure your method works better than mine. But this is what I do.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Sharpen This | 13 Comments

Sharp Edges Cut Out Profanity

1912 ad for the Pike Manufacturing Co., Haverhill, New Hampshire.

That’s a pretty good incentive don’t you think? Sharpen your tools and stop swearing.

Everybody Does It – A Sharpening World Tour

“The Polisher”

Neolithic polissoirs, characterized by straight grooves and a shallow basin, were used to sharpen axes, arrows and blades. If you encounter one you will see, and feel, that the grooves and basin remain smooth compared to the rough surface of the rest of the boulder. The Polisher in the photo above is on the Malborough Downs, Wiltshire, England. Polissoirs are also found in France.


Whakarewa is a grindstone used by generations of Maori. It sat in Mimiha stream until it was moved in the 1920s to make room for roads and other development.

The Romans mined whetstones in North Gaul (present day Northern France and Belgium), Crete and in other areas they conquered. The whetstones from North Gaul have been found in settlements dating to the 1st century C.E.

Some of the whetstones from North Gaul, such as the one above, have been found buried beneath the main support posts of buildings. It is not known what symbolic meaning the stones had for the builders or occupants of the buildings. Did a stone taken from the earth then used to sharpen tools or weapons become a powerful protector once placed back in the earth?

Louis-Charles Bombled, late 19th/early 20th century, Musee Jurassien des Art Moutier, Switzerland.

Roubo mentions sharpening stones as one of the necessary tools to be provided in a workshop. In Blombled’s crowded workshop, a sharpening station is right where it should be – close to the benches.

Top: collotype with hand coloring, MFA, Boston. Bottom: unattributed photo. Both are late 19th/early 20th century.

The Japanese workshops/work areas may be different from the European model, however, an area for sharpening was set up. At top, a chisel is being sharpened; in the bottom photo, (left foreground) sharpening stones and a water basin are at the ready.

A convenient placement for a sharpening stone, 1920s from “China at Work” by Rudolf Hommel.

A sharpening stone was placed near an entrance. Whether you are coming or going, it’s a good reminder to sharpen your tools.

There is some evidence of pillars or other stone supports that were designated “sharpening spots” on large construction sites, especially when the constructions lasted decades or longer. The Cathedral of Valencia has such a spot near an entrance that is marked with deep vertical grooves.

Detail from Plate 12, “To Make as Perfectly as Possible.”

In Plate 12, Roubo illustrates the tools needed to sharpen saws. He includes a saw set, triangular file and a saw-holding vise to be secured on the workbench.

Top: detail from “Preparatory Drawing in the Style of Hokusai,” 1811, British Museum. Bottom: “Totomi Sanchu,” 1830-31, by Hokusai, MFA, Boston.

Positioned close to sawyers cutting massive pieces of lumber we find the saw sharpeners. One uses a vise made of blocks, while another has adapted a tree stump to serve as a vise. (The full-size images of the drawing and woodblock print are in the gallery at the end of this post.)

In this shop setting we see another saw vise option and it includes a stabilizing foot.

One more set-up for sharpening saws in the field (or forest). Using a low staked bench and shaped wooden “grippers” (and maybe some wedges) the pit saw is secured for sharpening. Side note: the photo is unattributed but is possibly Russian as the lower word in the logo (bottom right) is Russian for joiner or carpenter.

Women’s Land Army/Women’s Forestry Corps, Britain, WWI, Imperial War Museum.

Is that a woman sharpening a two-woman saw in a lumber camp? Why yes, yes it is.

Left: Ichikawa Danjuro in the Role of Soga Goro from the play “Yanone,” ca. 1790, MFA, Boston. Top right: unattributed photo, late 19th/early 20th century. Bottom right: detail from “A Book Mirror of Various Occupations,” 1685, MFA, Boston.

This composite is a reminder of how little has changed in using sharpening stones on metal edges. A domed stone in a water basin (or a nearby basin) is used by sword makers 200 or more years apart. In a kabuki play, Yanone (Arrowhead) Goro sharpens a double-headed arrow as he prepares to avenge his father’s murder.


From a 1650 version of “Cries of London.”

One of the great values of whetstones is their portability. Take them into the field or forest. Pack them in your tool box for the trip to the next job site. Whetstone quarries abound with some in operation for centuries.

Eidsborg Whetstone Quarry, Norway.

The Eidsborg quarry in Tokke, Telemark, Norway, was in operation from at least the 8th century until 1970.

Initial trimming of a whetstone. Watercolor from the diaries of Peter Orlando Hutchinson, 1854.

In the Blackdown Hills near the Somerset-Devon border in southwest England whetstones were mined from the 17th century to the early 20th century. Miners had small individual stakes on the side of a hill. The men of the family (father and older boys) dug the mine shaft, hewed out the stone and did the initial shaping with a basing axe. The wife and small children of the family did the final shaping. It was a hard way to make a living and exposure to fine stone particles and dust affected the health of the entire family.

Blackdown Hills whetstone “batts.”

Whetstone batts from the Blackdown Hills were used to sharpen scythes and other farm implements and tools.

Roy Underhill at a played-out whetstone quarry.

One of the many explorations undertaken by Roy Underhill was to locate an old whetstone quarry near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His trip, and what he found, is in a chapter of his book “The Woodwright’s Companion.”

Rotating Grindstones

Psalm 63, “Utrecht Psalter,” Universiteitsbibliotheek, Utrecht. Digital image from the Warburg Institute Iconographic Database.

The earliest (so far) illustration of a rotary grindstone is from the 9th century “Utrecht Psalter.” It is supposedly a metaphor for “They sharpen their tongues like swords…” The grinder (grinding master?) sits high above the grindstone and to the side his minion turns a crank. Later manuscripts give us a better idea of the arrangement of this type of grindstone.

Top: “Luttrell Psalter,” 1340, British Museum. Bottom: fresco, 1425-40, Palazzo della Ragione, Padua, photo by Renzo Dionigi.

The top image provides a variation on a bird’s-eye view of this stationary grinder. The fresco below provides a much better view of how the grinder sat above the rotating stone. The lower half of the stone sits in a well of water and the minion turns the crank. This type of set-up could be found where large amounts of metal might be wrought, such as a large farming estate and shops making armor and weapons. The hand crank gave control over the speed of the grinding wheel.

Top left: “Cris de Paris,” 1500, BnF, Arsenal. Bottom left: “Cries of London” (source unknown), 1655. Right: “Cries of London” (source unknown), 1688.

If you lived in a city and had knives and scissors (or sciffars, or cifers) that needed sharpening a street vendor with a grinding wheel was readily available. The grinding wheel was propelled by a foot pedal and the vendor could use both hands. The vendor on the right has a cup (behind the larger wheel) to hold water or oil and on the frame there is a rag to wipe the blade clean (Chris has christened these rags, woobies).

Mr. Bert Smith, Bethnal Green in East London, c. 1949-1956, photo by Nigel Henderson, collection of the Tate.

The bicycle, both to turn the grindstone and to propel the cart, was another iteration of the portable grinder. Street vendors using foot or bicycle power can still be found in some large cities, but it is more common to visit a small shop or farmers’ market to have knives or scissors sharpened. That is why having a woodworker as a friend is a bonus.

Smaller versions of the stationary grinder became an asset to both large and small woodworking shops.

From “Lewis Miller: Sketches and Chronicles; Reflections of a Nineteenth Century Pennsylvania German Folk Artist,” 1810.

In 1810, Lewis Miller, carpenter and chronicler of York, Pennsylvania, has a small hand-cranked grinder in his shop.

Women’s Land Army/Women’s Forestry Corps, Britain, WWI, Imperial War Museum.

And just over 100 years later hand-cranked grinders were still in use. Electric bench grinders are most often in use today and remain an important tool in a woodworker’s shop.

There is one more pre-electric “bench” grinder to examine and that requires a short trip to Switzerland in 1367.

“Spiezer Chronik,” 1484-85, Burgerbibliothek, Bern.

The “Spiezer Chronik” was commissioned to document the history of Bern, from its founding to the mid-15th century. It was written by Diebold Schilling, the Elder of Bern. The chronicle includes a lot of action from the very-long Burgundian Wars and wonderful color illustrations.

On page 367 there is a scene at a river. On one side stands an army and on the other a forest. The explanation of the scene is: “The Bishop of Basel wants to cut down the Bremgarten forest, for which the Berners provide him with the grindstone, 1367.”

The accommodating people of Bern provided benches with hand-cranked grindstones, water buckets and whetstones. Extra grindstones are arranged on the trees. The Bishop brought the axes. Sit astride a low bench and hand-crank the grindstone, what an idea.

Pick One

If you listen to most of the  experienced woodworkers out there they will tell you it doesn’t matter what system of sharpening you use.

The Arrotino (with woobie over his shoulder), 1st century B.C.E, Roman copy of an Hellenistic original, Uffizi, Florence.

Use sharpening stones, water or oil. Don’t forget the woobie.

“Axe Sharpener” by Chicago-area artist and rock musician Jay Ryan. From Sebastian Foster online.

Use a file to get those burrs. And yes, bears do sharpen in the woods.


Go old school and use the classic “head-over-grindstone”method. If need be, your dog can be a counterweight.

The point is: chose a method, learn it and use it to sharpen your tools.


On this blog go to the Categories drop down menu (on the right) and look for “Sharpen This.” There you will find Chris Schwarz’s full series on sharpening.

Many books published by Lost Art Press include discussions on sharpening. One place to start is Chapter 10 “Essential Sharpening Kit” in “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest.”

You can read about the woobie, ahem, “The SuperWoobie” here.

— Suzanne Ellison

Posted in Sharpen This | 24 Comments

Sold Out of Hammers, Again

We sold out of our Crucible Lump Hammers within hours (again). Why don’t we take back orders? This entry explains why.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Crucible Tool, Uncategorized | 4 Comments