The last item or two in every Anarchist’s Gift Guide are a little more expensive than the others. I feel bad recommending expensive gear, but I’m passionate about these particular selections. This year is no exception.
First is the Brown & Sharpe Dial Caliper. I use dial calipers throughout the day and am picky as hell about them. Many imported calipers are difficult to read, they move roughly and they’re fragile. The Brown & Sharpe has none of these problems.
I’ve had this pair for about 10 years. The dial is easy to read with silver numerals on a black background. The gears move just as smoothly as the day I bought the tool. And they have outlasted all the other brands we’ve had in the shop.
Some hand tool enthusiasts might scoff at a dial caliper, saying it’s a machinist tool. I make no apologies; I love the things. They are invaluable for toolmaking – we have to hit certain specs for the Crucible parts we make here. Plus the tools are great for diagnosing woodworking joinery problems. When I have a tenon or spindle that is too tight, the dial caliper shows me where the problem is. And it can point out how much material I have to remove.
When I’m fitting shelves in dados, the caliper can tell me how many passes I need to take with a smoothing plane to get the part to fit in its dado. And on and on.
Plus, when you have a contest to see who can saw the thinnest slice off the end of a board, the dial caliper can declare the winner.
The calipers come in a hard-shell plastic case. The case isn’t the best (the locking mechanism is kinda crappy), but if you keep the tool safe in its case when not in use, it should last your entire woodworking career.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. Thanks to Thomas Lie-Nielsen for introducing me to these excellent dial calipers.
Here’s another tool I wrote about earlier in the year. We mix a lot of shellac in our shop (among other things), and getting the flakes to dissolve quickly is always a challenge.
Enter the Intllab Magnetic Stirrer. This $30 gizmo dissolves flakes in short order with little effort on my part. I put the alcohol in a jar, dump in the flakes, drop in the magnetic stir bar and turn on the machine. Then I walk away and work on something else for a little while.
As several people have pointed out, another solution is to grind the flakes into a powder with a coffee bean grinder (which is about the same price as the magnetic stirrer). I’ve seen this done, and it works, too. But here’s the problem with that solution: It doesn’t use magnets, which are cool. (Also, I don’t own a bean grinder.)
I also use the magnetic stirrer for mixing milk paint powder and stirring the flatting paste into lacquer. (Try putting flatting paste in your coffee grinder.)
Is a magnetic stirrer essential to your workshop? No. But it’s a nice luxury and is great fun to play with.
I implored Chris to let me have this one day of the 2020 gift guide to share a favorite of mine: the long-blade model of the R. Murphy Hand Carving and Dental Lab Knife. I inherited this knife and other hand tools from my grandfather, and it’s the only tool of his that I use on an almost-daily basis when I’m at the bench.
It’s great for scooping out relief cuts on the backs of tails and making flat cuts at the baseline to remove that scoop of waste. I also use it for quickly cleaning out any lingering waste at the base of pin boards.
Sure, you can use a chisel for relief cuts, but it’s not quite as efficient or comfortable. I’ve found this narrow-knife blade, with its flat cutting edge and comfortable handle, the fastest and most satisfying tool for these relief cuts I make on almost every one of my projects (I cut a lot of dovetails).
In fact, I like it so much that I just ordered a backup. It’s available from a number of stores for about $20, but I went right to the source: R. Murphy.
I think my grandfather used this knife for chip carving – so if you’re into that (or dental lab work of some kind), it’s multi-purpose!
Who better to write a book about Jonathan Fisher, a late 18th century/early 19th century Maine woodworker and preacher, than Joshua Klein? Like Fisher, Joshua and his family are homesteaders in rural Maine, doing their best to live completely off the land. And Joshua is using in his own shop many of the same types of tools that Fisher had in his collection (not a surprise to those who know Joshua as the founder and editor in chief of Mortise & Tenon Magazine, a periodical that celebrates the preservation, research and recreation of historic furniture). As the crow flies, the Kleins live about 7 miles from Fisher’s Blue Hill farm.
In November 1810, Fisher began building a model of a “wood house.” Never one for technological stagnation, Fisher envisioned a building next to his house that was dedicated to producing lumber on a wind-powered sawmill that would also power his lathe. As a lumbering town, Blue Hill had numerous water-powered sawmills in Fisher’s days, but on his property at the top of the hill, Fisher had no access to a river or stream. What he did have, especially after years of clearing his property, was wind.
Although the memories of New England’s windmills are nearly faded, their abundance, especially along the coastline, is well documented. (2) As early as the 17th century, windmills (primarily for grinding grain) were being built in areas of New England without direct water access so they were not an unusual sight by the early 1800s.
As commonly known as they were, however, the construction of such a mechanism was beyond the skill of most craftsmen. One author has noted that the millwright’s job required a precision and care equal to the shipwright’s. The vision of a rural farmer building a windmill to saw his own lumber is quixotic. It seemed a project doomed to fail.
Reading through the journals during the two-and-a-half-years of construction of the mill is agonizing, especially as the recorded tally of his investment that included his own labor rises at $1 per day (the same rate as Joseph Murphy, a cabinetmaker of South Berwick (3) ) in the midst of numerous frustrated attempts at sawing.
We know the mill was generating power as early as April 1812, because Fisher recorded having his grindstone running “by wind.” After investing substantially and working on it for more than two years, Fisher recorded on April 19, 1813: “Worked upon saw gear and made an attempt to saw wood. Broke the [?]. Greatly disappointed in my hopes. Endeavored to resign to the will of God but found it a hard trial. I doubt not, however, but God intends good by this cross. Expense of wood house, etc. = $215.50.” The next day all that is recorded is: “Made a new experiment to carry my saw for sawing wood by wind – discouraged in it. Laid it aside = $216.50.”
Despite his discouragement, Fisher carried on and a few days later wrote, “first commenced sawing wood, with some, though small, good effect.” From here, only periodic sawing is recorded. The anticlimactic success of the sawmill is startling after so much labor and expense.
The wind power was also harnessed to drive the lathe. June of that year, Fisher documented: “Worked upon turning gear and set my lath a-going by wind.” Powering lathes with water power was common in production shops but wind-powered lathes were much less common. It’s hard to envision the practicality of such a setup. The irregularity of the wind must have been a challenge to deal with for the turning he was doing. The idea is not unprecedented, however. Windmill historian, Roy Gregory, has documented the use of an 8.5′-tall tower mill in a Lancashire, England, shop that powered a lathe and circular saw. The mill is described as having four 8′ long common sails with gears for regulating speed (4). Ants Viires, a historian of Estonian woodcraft, has photographed a small tower mill attached to the roof of a mid-20th-century spinning wheel workshop. It is likely that Fisher’s was similar in size.
The design of the wood house’s lathe is unknown. In Fisher’s room-by-room probate inventory taken in 1847, it listed a lathe and its chisels in the barn of which his son, Willard, was half-owner. Because two of the existing poppets do not fit the surviving lathe, it is assumed that Fisher had another lathe in the shop that was discarded when that building was taken down. Because no lathe (or any workbenches, for that matter) are listed in the probate inventory, it may be that these shop fixtures were built-ins. Often, probate inventories exclude these items because they were considered part of the shop building.
It is apparent that Fisher achieved his primary goal with this windmill project because he was able to generate lumber to some degree. But it must not have revolutionized his production enough because in June 1821, he disassembled the tower of his mill, never to speak of the mill in action again. Neither the 1824 Morning View painting nor the 1888 photograph of the wood house show any evidence to testify to the existence of the mill.
That Fisher referred to a least a portion of his wood house as his “shop” suggests that he eventually moved his tools out of the barn and into this dedicated space. The transition between workspaces must have been gradual because the installations of a new workbench and lathe are carried out over time amidst other woodworking projects. It is also conceivable that there always remained a small shop space in the barn for convenience sake.
In June 1823, Fisher was busy setting up his “shop chamber.” He moved his grindstone to a new location, built a “cupboard” for tool storage, constructed a portable workbench and installed a new stove. The reconfiguring of this workspace was likely due to his feeling “the infirmities of old age creeping stealthily upon him.” Perhaps this rearrangement facilitated his work.
2. Lombardo, Daniel, Windmills of New England: Their Genius, Madness, History & Future, On Cape Publications, 2003. 3. Burch, Abby, By His Account Rendered: The Business of Cabinetmaking in York County, Maine, 1815-1840, a modified master’s thesis, 2008. 4. Gregory, Roy, The Industrial Windmill in Britain, Phillimore & Co., 2005.
If you make furniture for people who have wood floors, I think you should adhere pads to the feet. Adhesive pads prevent the furniture from scratching the floor. The pads make less of a noise when the furniture is pushed forward or back. And they add a note of professionalism to your work. Customers notice.
Hardware store pads are terrible. The adhesive lasts about 20 minutes or two meals, whichever comes first. To get around this problem, I’d taken to adhering my pads with epoxy, which greatly improved their life.
Recently Tom Bonamici, the clothing designer at Lost Art Press, mentioned that he used the wool-blend furniture feet from Lee Valley Tools and that they were excellent. I have never encountered a pad that was acceptable, much less excellent. Challenge accepted.
I bought a bunch of the pads and have been using them on the furniture pieces that we abuse the most: our kitchen and dining room chairs. Our floor is old heart pine and is uneven and imperfect. And so these pads get a workout. After months of abuse, all the pads are intact.
These are the same price as the junk at the hardware store. You stick them on and forget them. Like life should be.