Since we started making tools at Lost Art Press under the Crucible name, I have avoided writing anything that could be considered a tool review, save for my annual Anarchist’s Gift Guide. It doesn’t seem fair for a toolmaker to pass judgment on other toolmakers.
However, during my research for “The Stick Chair Book,” I have been purchasing and using all manner of new-to-me chairmaking tools in order to understand different approaches to the craft. Some of them have been duds, of course. But some of them have opened my eyes.
Because a book is a terrible place to review a tool, I am going to publish my thoughts on many of these tools here on the blog. As always, I pay full price for all my tools. I don’t exchange reviews for anything. And I hope that this is one of the reasons you are still reading this ancient blog.
The first tool I’d like to talk about is the inshave made by blacksmith Lucian Avery.
Lucian Avery Inshave
For almost 20 years, I’ve used the same inshave/scorp from Barr Tools to saddle all my chairs. Barr Quarton doesn’t make this exact scorp anymore, though he makes a similar one called the Mike Dunbar-Style Scorp.
It’s a hell of a tool. Of all the hand tools I’ve owned in my life, I haven’t owned a tool that takes a better edge or keeps it longer. (Yes, even premium Japanese tools.)
Its handles are dark grey from my sweat and grime. If you own one of my chairs, this tool saddled its seat.
For “The Stick Chair Book,” I wanted to try a different style of inshave, which has a flat curve along most of the blade with tight-radius corners. I did a lot of homework and settled on an inshave from Lucian Avery that was designed with the help of George Sawyer (Dave Sawyer’s son).
I don’t make Windsor chairs, but I thought the flat curve of Avery’s inshave would help me achieve the shallow saddle found on stick chairs – with a lot less fussing.
As I mentioned, I’ve been using the Barr scorp for a long time, which has a tight-radius curve – 2-1/4”. It can hollow out a seat with incredible speed. The downside to this shape is that it’s easy to overdo it. An errant stroke or two adds a lot of work with the travisher later.
The Avery inshave is different in every respect. The tool is half the weight of the Barr (9 oz. vs. 18 oz). The handles are in a much lower working position (2-3/4” off the bevel as compared to 4-3/4” off the bevel). But the biggest difference is the shape of the blade. The shallow curve is not as aggressive, but it leaves a much flatter and smoother curve behind. Yet, the tight-radius curves at its edges allow you to carve along the spindle deck with confidence.
In short, the shape of the Avery tool is much more suited for the type of saddle I carve. The saddle is much flatter, which cuts down on the time I spend with the travisher considerably.
As a bonus, the lower handles and reduced weight of the Avery make the tool less tiring to use.
I’m in love. It’s an extraordinary tool. Light, nimble and responsive. I look forward to using it as much as my travisher.
The current price is $263, which is a beyond-fair price for a blacksmith-made tool of this caliber. It also comes with a clever rawhide sheath that adds no bulk or real weight to the tool.
If you make stick chairs and need an inshave, this one is perfect.
We have two new products in our store today, and we have been able to restock our supply of tools and some books that were sold out. All of the following products are in stock and ready to ship from our warehouse.
“The Workshop Book” by Scott Landis, with a new foreword by Roy Underhill
We are happy to announce the release of “The Workshop Book,” which is the definitive book on setting up shop. The book is the companion to “The Workbench Book,” also by Scott Landis, which we released last year.
If you are just setting up shop or wish to improve where you work, I cannot recommend a better text.
“The Workshop Book” is $38 and is printed in the USA to our usual high standards. The pages are a bright white, sewn for durability and bound between thick cotton-covered boards. The whole thing is wrapped with a tear-resistant dust jacket. You can read more about the book and download an excerpt here.
“Mechanic’s Companion” by Peter Nicholson
“Mechanic’s Companion” is one of the foundational English-language books on hand-tool woodworking. First published in 1812, “Mechanic’s Companion” was written by a trained cabinetmaker, and the methods discussed are relevant today for anyone who works with hand tools.
If you are interested in hand tools and history, this is an essential text. Our version is printed in the USA on offset presses – not print-on-demand. The pages are folded, sewn and glued, not simply cut and glued together. The pages are wrapped in hard boards that are covered with cotton cloth. This is a permanent book. Because we think all hand tool woodworkers should own it, we have kept the price at a reasonable $23.
Restock: “Door Making & Window-Making” by Anonymous
We have also replenished our supply of Crucible Bench Squares. This handy square is an ideal little tool to keep on the bench – or hanging on a bench leg. It’s great for checking squareness while edge-jointing and marking 90° or 45° lines on your work. Read more about it here.
New 10th Anniversary “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” Hats
And finally, a reward for reading this far: We have a limited supply of “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” Hats made by Ebbets Field in the USA. These are about the nicest ballcaps around. And they feature a stitched felt anarchist’s square on the front. We have only 144 of these, and we don’t expect them to last long in the store.
I empathize with the early woodworker. My brain is wired to look for a simpler solution to a problem instead of creating complexity.
Example: Earlier this year, I spent a couple hours in the dentist’s chair and was force-fed several episodes of a home-improvement show focused on carving out storage from oddball places in a home. Some of the examples I remember over the whirring of the dental Dremel include:
• Hinge your steps to create trap doors on the landings of your stairs to make small bins in the wasted space between your stringers. • Find stud walls that are chases for utilities and turn them into built-in chests of drawers. • In attic spaces, create sliding racks on the interior of a high-pitched roof. You slide giant plastic bins into the racks – it’s a bit like a top-hanging drawer. Through the entire program I wanted to puke (that was mostly because I have a sensitive gag reflex). But it was also because these “storage solution” programs neglect to mention the easiest way to control clutter:
Get rid of your excess crap.
No one should have so much stuff that they have to slave excessively to make a place to stow it. In the same way, no workbench needs vises on all four corners (I’ve built these for students and customers) to build fine furniture. You just don’t.
With this book, I hope to expose you to early and simple ways of holding your work. While many of these devices were used on low workbenches, most of them work on high workbenches as well. I use both sorts of benches – high and low – in my work for building all manner of things, from stud walls to Welsh stick chairs, dovetailed chests to nailed-together coffins.
The workholding on these benches is truly ingenious and effective. Things change when you sit down to work. And I think you’ll be surprised what you can do on your bum: planing, chiseling, shaving and even dovetailing.
The low bench form might not be for everyone. But it might be right for you and you might not know it. Woodworkers with limited mobility use low benches because they can sit and work. Apartment woodworkers use low benches because they take up little space and do double-duty as seating or a coffee table. Curious woodworkers use them because – dammit – they are an interesting form to build and use. Many chairmakers already use a low bench (but they call it a shavehorse), as do many other specialty trades, including coopers and basketmakers. Oh, and a low bench is the best sawbench ever made – promise.
One more plug for these early benches: Using their lessons, you can make almost any surface into a worksurface. A couple drywall screws can turn a picnic table into an English-style workbench. A missing brick in a wall (and a pine wedge) can become a face vise. A shavehorse can be cobbled together with a rock and a scrap of wood strapped to your gut.
Even if you never build a low workbench and reject its appliances as “not whiz-bang-y” enough for your engineering mindset, you might enjoy the journey of discovery required to write this book. It involved trips to exotic Italy, Germany and Indianapolis. (And understanding the low bench might connect your work to Chinese benches.) In the process, we rescued oak slabs from a pallet factory. We flushed $1,000 down a metaphorical toilet to learn about the construction of the first modern workbench in 1505. We ate a ton of Neapolitan pizza.
Workbenches are at the heart of everything we do. So, let’s take a brief look at the history of Western workbenches and consider why it’s even worth looking at ancient benches.
Q: In making a drawer with half-blind dovetails for the front and through-dovetails for the back, what is your favorite way to incorporate and assemble a bottom? Through-grooves on the side pieces or slips added to sides? Stopped grooves on front/back pieces or through-grooves positioned to fall within the lowest tail?
A: As almost always, the answer is: it depends. Some projects call for a particular approach, for example, a reproduction of a high-end 18th-century English piece is likely going to call for drawer slips. As might any drawer that has delicate (read: thin) sides – slips can add enough extra thickness and thus strength only where it’s needed. Particularly nice slips (see above) are also an excellent way to showcase mad skills.
But around here, we’re not usually that fancy (or British) – both Chris and I typically make drawers with bottoms rabbetted to fit into grooves on the drawer sides and front; they are then nailed from underneath at the center of the (narrower) drawer back, or supported with a nail or screw through a slot. The grooves land in half tails at the bottom of the drawer sides. And I can’t speak for Chris, but I’ve never cut a stopped groove for a drawer bottom…that I can recall.
Perhaps there is nothing which so quickly reveals the quality of piece of woodwork as the fitting of its drawers. Properly made, a drawer will move in or out without jamming when held by one corner only, even when it is 3 ft. or more long. A poor one will drop badly when opened, it may be stiff in some positions even, although it may appear slack all round, it will most likely racket sideways and jam, and it may have unsightly gaps around its edges at the front. We deal with some of the problems and describe the procedure in making which experience has shown to be sound.
At the outset it should be realised that drawer making begins before the actual drawer itself is put in hand. It starts in the carcase or cupboard to which it is to be fitted. If this is out of square or is at fault in some other way the drawer will make a poor fit, even though it be faultlessly made — in fact its squareness and truth will be a source of trouble.
Carcase and Runners. Perhaps the most obvious point is that the carcase must be square in plan as otherwise a square drawer will not fit. (Squareness in elevation is not so important from the drawer-making angle because the front and back are fitted to the actual carcase, and if it is at all out the drawer itself will be out correspondingly.) If anything the carcase back should be a trifle wider than the front, and when guides are to be fitted some workers fix these so that they are about 1∕16 in. wider apart at the back than at the front. When there are no guides, the drawers running directly against the carcase ends, the top and bottom can be made a trifle full at the back to allow clearance.
Winding Runners. Quite clearly each runner must be parallel with that above it or be slightly wider apart at the back (this is easily managed by planing them a little thinner towards the rear), but, what is equally important, they must be free of winding. Unless this is the case the drawer will bind even though there appears to be sufficient depth when measured at each side. Take A, Fig. 2, for instance. Even though the distance X equals the drawer depth, the drawer is bound to bind because the runners wind.
As a rule it is impossible to look across the runners to test for winding, but the method at B can be followed. A strip of wood with parallel edges is placed across the runners at the back. Winding strips placed on this and the drawer rail then at once disclose any inaccuracy. When the runners fit in grooves this trouble is not likely to arise, assuming the workmanship to be accurate, but even so a test is desirable. Be sure, however, that the carcase is standing square. Otherwise if one corner is resting upon an irregularity the whole thing may be distorted.
Other causes of trouble are shown at C, Fig. 2. At the top the rail is not square. Consequently the whole weight and movement of the drawer is borne by the extreme front edge, causing rapid wear. In the middle example the rail is twisted the other way. Consequently there is an unsightly gap at the front edge which is difficult to avoid. The same result occurs at the bottom diagram and is due to the runner not being flush with the rail. In cheap, machine-made furniture the drawers are intentionally made a very slack fit so that all individual fitting is avoided. Each drawer goes straight into its carcase direct from the assembling shop, and, to mask what would otherwise be an unsightly gap around the edges, the drawer front is rebated all round, the projecting lap standing out from the surface as at D, Fig. 2. This means that all the drawers can be entered easily, but they are all a bad fit. It is largely because of this that in better quality machine-made furniture the drawers are still dovetailed and fitted by hand.
Normal Type Drawer. As a straightforward example of drawer-making take an ordinary chest of drawers such as that in Fig. 1. The fronts might be in 1 in. stuff, and the sides and back 3∕8 in. For the bottom 3∕16 in. stuff is about right for average sizes. It is common practice to use oak for sides and back even when the front is in another hardwood such as mahogany, and it should be realised that it is of little value to have a drawer in hardwood and then make the runners of softwood. The last named would wear very rapidly.
Prepare the front first, planing it to thickness and marking the outer surface as the face side and the bottom as the face edge. Plane the bottom edge straight and square, if anything making the inside slightly smaller than the outside. There should not be more than the thickness of a piece of newspaper difference. Try it in position on the rail. Theoretically it should fit, but if the rail should not be perfectly straight the edge should be planed to fit it. Now trim the right hand end to make a close fit with the cabinet as at E, Fig. 2, again making a very slightly tapered fit.
Mark the length at the bottom as shown inset, square across, and cut with the saw on the waste side. Plane the end grain until the inner edge just enters the space with a tight fit. There will probably be enough width to enable the upper corner to be chiselled off when planing the end grain, but be careful not to chisel away too much so that the corner of the actual drawer is taken off. Finally the width is marked and the top edge planed so that the complete front just enters the space as shown at the bottom at E, Fig. 2.
It is most important that the angle at which the edges are planed is not excessive. As already stated there should not be more than the thickness of a piece of newspaper difference between the two. One way is to plane the edge square, then pass the plane over to one side and take another shaving.
In this way the shaving is thicker at one side than at the other and this gives about the right angle. All fronts should be planed to fit, and, in the event of there being more than one drawer of the same size, each should be fitted individually and its position marked to give quick identification.
Back. Preparation of the backs is similar so far as the bottom and ends are concerned except that they are planed square. The width, however, is less because the back stands above the drawer bottom and is well down at the top to give clearance (see Fig. 3). It is therefore necessary to decide the position of the drawer bottom and the top clearance straightway. The former is generally fixed by the size of drawer bottom slip moulding being used. Top clearance can be 1∕4 to 3∕8 in.
Sides. To fix the length of the sides the lap on the front dovetails has to be allowed for. On 7∕8 in. wood the lap is about 3∕16 in. and the sides have to be short by this amount. At the rear the drawer should be short so that it does not quite reach the carcase back. Allowance has also to be made when the drawer bottom is of solid wood as distinct from plywood because it has to project anything up to 1∕2 in. in a large drawer to allow of its being pushed forward to take up shrinkage (see Fig. 3).
Plane the bottom edge straight and trim the front edge square with it. Mark the length and plane the back as well. Set a gauge to slightly more than the width, mark the wood and plane down to the line. It is then a matter of trying the side in position and removing fine shavings until it fits. There should be a hand-tight fit. Shavings are best removed on the shooting board. Mark the front bottom corner R or L for identification as at F Fig. 2.
Dovetailing. Dovetailing now follows, and this follows the normal procedure except for the special form of dovetail which is shown in Fig. 3. At the front the pins are very small and run almost to a point, and the bottom dovetail must be close enough to the bottom to include in it the groove which holds the bottom. Otherwise the groove will show at the ends. The bottom edge of the back rests upon the bottom and it passes through the sides and thus forms the bottom pin. The bottom cut is therefore square, not at the usual dovetail angle (Fig. 3). A gauge can be set to mark the position (it is fixed by the groove in the drawer bottom slip moulding) and the bottom cut made in line with it. Before assembling all inner surfaces must be cleaned up, and the groove to hold the bottom worked in the front.
Fitting. All fitting is done before the bottom is added, and precautions are necessary to avoid racking the drawer when planing. The simplest way is to screw a couple of stout battens to the bench and place the drawer over these as at G, Fig. 2. As a rule it is necessary to work inwards from each end to avoid splitting out the end grain. Do not remove more than is essential to give a clean finish, and try the drawer in position frequently. Note carefully where it appears to run tightly. This is often revealed by the shiny appearance of the surface, but it is generally possible to tell by the movement where the tightness is. So far as the edges are concerned use the panel or trying plane so as to keep them straight, and rest the rear part of the plane across the front as at I, Fig. 2. It is a great help in keeping it square.
An excellent lubricant for drawers is candle grease, but it should not be used until all fitting has been completed—in fact it is better to leave it until after polishing, especially if the drawer sides are to be stained. Grease may prevent the stain from taking.
The bottom slips are glued to the sides and must be cut away at the back as shown in Fig. 4. The more usual form is that to the left in the small diagram, though the other has an advantage in giving a flush top surface. The reason why slips are used is that the sides (which are thin) are not weakened by grooving, and the bearing surface is increased in width.
When plywood is used for the bottom it can finish flush at the back. In solid wood allowance must be made for shrinkage. It stands out at the rear (Fig. 3) and is screwed up to the back. After a few months the wood shrinks and pulls out from the groove at the front and the screws are then slackened, the bottom pushed forward, and the screws tightened afresh. Slots for the screws are often cut as in Fig. 4 to avoid making fresh holes. The bottom is never glued in because it would be liable to split in the event of shrinkage.
Drawer stops are fitted as at H, Fig. 2. A gauge is set to the front thickness and the rail marked to show the position. The grain runs from front to back as it resists wear better.
June marks the 10-year anniversary of the publication of “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest,” which is the book that allowed me to release myself on my own recognizance from corporate publishing.
As promised, to mark the occasion we are doing almost nothing.
I have a blog entry planned that I promised readers five years ago. And we are releasing two products: this stunning red bandana that was cut, sewn and printed by One Feather Press. And a ballcap from Ebbets Field, which will be in the store next week.
We are making only 144 bandanas and 144 hats. There are limits to what the small manufacturers can make, and we love to order a “gross” of objects, whatever they may be. Once these bandanas and hats are gone, they will be gone forever.
The bandana mimics the one press run of the “Anarchist’s Tool Chest” that we did with a red cover five years ago. Details of the hat are forthcoming.
We are in our 13th printing of the “Anarchist’s Tool Chest” and have printed more than 35,000 copies, which would be nothing to a corporate publishing house. But it is everything to me and the people who keep Lost Art Press running: John, Megan, Meghan and Kara (and our families).