The following is excerpted from “Mechanic’s Companion,” by Peter Nicholson, one of the foundational English-language texts in woodworking and the building trades. First published in 1812, “Mechanic’s Companion” is an invaluable and thorough treatment of techniques, with 40 plates that provide an excellent and detailed look at the tools of the time, along with a straightforward chapter on the geometry instruction necessary to the building trades.
If you work with hand tools, you will find useful primary-source information on how to use the tools at the bench. That’s because Nicholson – unlike other technical writers of the time – was a trained cabinetmaker, who later became an architect, prolific author and teacher. So he writes (and writes well) with the authority of experience and clarity on all things carpentry and joinery. For the other trades covered – bricklaying, masonry, slating, plastering, painting, smithing and turning – he relies on masters for solid information and relays it in easy-to-understand prose.
A B the treadle or foot-board.
a the manner of fixing the treadle to the floor.
C the crank hook, hooked into a staple, and the end of the piece A.
D the crank for turning the fly with the upper part of the crank hook formed into a collar for embracing the crank.
E the fly. heel with several angular grooves cut in its circumference, in order to hold the band and keep it from sliding.
F the pillar for supporting the end of the mandrel.
G the puppet supporting the end of the mandrel, which holds the chuck.
H the right hand puppet, containing the fore centre, which is tightened by means of a screw.
I, K the legs, the fly being supported by that of I, the other end is supported by an upright between the legs.
L the mandrel, showing the end of the spindle projecting over the puppet G, in order to receive the chuck.
M the rest, tightened below by means of a screw, and made so as to be fixed in any position to the chuck.
N a foot-board.
O several of the most useful tools employed in turning.
The following is excerpted from “The Workshop Book,” by Scott Landis. First published in 1991, it remains the most complete book about every woodworker’s favorite place: the workshop.
“The Workshop Book” is a richly illustrated guided tour of some of the world’s most inspiring workshops — from garage to basement shops, from mobile to purpose-built shops.
Note: Ben Thresher died in 1995; his mill has since been restored and is now a museum. Find out more at bensmill.com.
Falling water has powered mills and machinery for several thousand years. Until the Civil War, when it was eclipsed by steam, water was the principal source of stationary power in America, spawning tens of thousands of small mills all over the Northeast. Several Shaker communities piped water great distances underground to run their machines.
For a brief while at the end of the last century, water and steam lived side by side. But the eventual decline of water as a primary source of local power parallels a similar transition between craft and manufacturing. (The recent revival of both craft and small hydro projects may be more than coincidental.) In today’s “post-industrial” society, water power is a comforting reminder of an age in which craft was more than a luxury.
Collapsed mills and breached dams flank the rivers of New England, but on a winding road in northern Vermont, one old woodshop clings stubbornly to its bank. I first saw “Ben’s Mill” in a film of the same name, which was produced in the early 1980s. When I visited the mill (shown above) in East Barnet, Vermont, last spring, I drove right past it, never thinking it might house a working shop. With its broken windows and overgrown yard, the haggard structure looked even more disreputable than it did in the film. Clinging to the clapboard beneath the eaves were traces of rust-colored paint that the mill’s owner, Ben Thresher, figure are original. “Modern latex wouldn’t last that long,” he says, and he’s sure he never painted it.
The mill has become a Vermont institution and Thresher is a local legend, doling out sturdy country woodwork and droll humor in equal measure. For half a century, he has served the seasonal needs of his farming neighbors – building cordwood sleighs for the winter, wooden cattle tubs in the spring and tool handles all year. The fall before my visit, Thresher pressed 6,000 gallons of cider. It’s a no-frills operation, and Thresher would certainly be more at home in the Dominy shop than in many modern furniture studios I visited.
In the film, Thresher notes, “I was just a johnny-come-lately. The real history of it came way before me.” Ben’s Mill is situated about 2-1/2 miles up Stevens Brook from the Connecticut River, New England’s major inland artery. At one time, there were at least four mills in Barnet – including a gristmill, a sash and blind factory and a sawmill on Thresher’s side of the village – and three more in West Barnet (two more gristmill and a woodshop like Thresher’s).
Ben’s Mill has been running since 1848 on the site of an earlier sawmill, and it is the only survivor. The mill hasn’t run off water since 1982, when a flood swept away one end of the dam and part of the penstock. Thresher installed a concrete foundation the following year to keep the mill from sliding into its own stream. He calls it his “monument,” and says, “it wouldn’t be there now if it hadn’t been for me. I’m just that stubborn.” Although electricity was installed on Thresher’s road in 1903, he uses it to power only three bare bulbs, an electric drill and a small motor. In the early days, he recalls, the lights in the shop dimmed when the farmers down the road began their evening milking.
The machinery is now powered by a small tractor, which is belted to the mill’s main lineshaft. Apart from having to oil the wooden bearings (which used to be lubricated with water) and not having to drain and clean the penstock, operation and maintenance of the mill is about the same as it was when it was water driven. “Of course it’s different work,” Thresher says. “It comes out about the same … except you have to buy gasoline.”
In the beginning, Thresher put in 16-hour days at the mill, adding, “Maybe I’d be able to do more now if I hadn’t done so much then.” He relates one particularly chilling episode about an ice floe that jammed the gates open. Thresher waded into the waist-deep water and chopped the ice out with an ax until he could pound the gates shut with a sledge. The next morning, it was -27° F but the dam was full and the mill was running. “I wouldn’t do that now,” he says.
Nowadays, Thresher doesn’t work much in the mill in the winter – it’s dark and the walls are uninsulated. But sometime around April (or on an occasional warm winter clay), he shuffles down the hill from his house across the road, rolls back the front door and fires up the tractor. For the last ten years, Thresher has worked alone. “I’m used to it,” he says. “No arguments that way.” On a more serious note, he adds, “I do so many different things that you pretty well lose your time to do [an employee’s] work.” Shrugging at the triphammer in the corner of the blacksmith shop, “That’s the best man I ever had,” he says. “It won’t talk back.”
Over the years, the river has proved company enough. The water may be high or low, frozen or flooding, but it’s never the same. When the mill was running, water flowed through a gate at one end of the wooden dam and into the penstock. Ben built the penstock in 1949 out of hemlock and tamarack, tough softwood that lasts about as long as oak. In its construction, the penstock resembles a horizontal wooden silo, with metal spline in the butt-jointed ends of the boards to keep it from leaking. As the wood swells, the joints seal “just the same a a tub,” Ben explains, “and as well.”
At the end of the penstock is a horizontal turbine, built in 1911, the year before Thresher was born. The flow of water is controlled by a cast-iron “cheesecake” gate inside the turbine or by boards shoved in front of the penstock. Next to the penstock in the basement is an old boiler, which Thresher uses to fire a steambox to bend wagon wheels and sled runners or to evaporate cider jelly.
The tailwater beneath the turbine is 16 ft. below the top of the mill pond, a drop (or “head”) that generated 29-1/2 hp, or enough to run all the shop machinery at once. (According to Thresher, the 2-ft. long draft tube beneath the turbine added almost as much power as the drop from the pond.) “You could nun a 1-/2-in. dia. bit in the drill press and slow it right down,” Thresher explains, “and you’ve still got the torque.”
Thresher pulls the wheel on his bandsaw to jump start it in motion and explains that the machinery “is pretty much like it was 100 years ago.” In the last 40 years, he has purchased only two machines – a drill press and a lathe – and the drill press was older than the one it replaced. A horizontal boring machine, more than 100 years old, was moved into the shop from another mill. The elegant cast wheel on the Carey jointer is stenciled “Lowell Ma. 1870.” He has two table saws: a sliding saw for crosscutting and a hinged saw for ripping. (The depth of cut is controlled by lifting one end of the hinged top.) “Boy, if I had the lumber that went across that table it’d be quite a pile,” Thresher says.
Most of the machinery is situated in the middle of the first-floor workspace, and Ben works across the width of the shop. That way, the material is less likely to interfere with other machines, and he can open a window or the large sliding door to accommodate long stock. There’s hardly a tool guard in the building. “OSHA would shut me right down,” Thresher says, “only I don’t hire anybody.” Over the years, the machines have caught him only once, when he snagged his sleeve in the table saw and lost the first digit of one thumb.
What OSHA never got around to doing, time is taking care of. Between spring floods and winter frosts, upkeep on the dam and penstock is enough to make anyone think twice about generating their own power. (Thresher has rebuilt the dam four times.) Still, water is more efficient than just about any other source of power – including electricity, gasoline or wind. It’s 90 percent efficient, according to Thresher, and he hated to see it go. Sometimes he still talks as though it hadn’t. As I left, he told me, “If it keeps raining, we’ll have a good year.”
“Roubo on Furniture” is filled with insights into working wood and building furniture that are difficult or impossible to find in both old and modern woodworking books. Unlike many woodworking writers of the 18th century Roubo was a traditionally trained and practicing joiner. He interviewed fellow craftsmen from other trades to gain a deep and nuanced view of their practices. He learned to draw, so almost all of the illustrations in this book came from his hand.
In addition to the translated text and images from the original, “With All the Precision Possible: Roubo on Furniture” also includes five contemporary essays on Roubo’s writing by craftsmen Christopher Schwarz, Don Williams, Michael Mascelli, Philippe Lafargue and Jonathan Thornton.
As far as the manner of joining panels, after they have been dressed or smoothed, according to whether they are more or less thick, you begin by trimming them and making them equal width, observing to eradicate all types of sapwood, knots and splits, after which you set them up according to the different widths that they should have. You should take precaution to put the planks of a similar color together, the narrowest (which we name alaises) in the center [of the panel], and the edges of the plank that are softer [wood closer to sapwood] should be used in the groove joints [in the frame]. After they have been thus set up, you begin making the joints by cutting the grooves, then you make the tongues. After having taken the precaution to position the plank where you have made the groove against where you wish to make the tongue, to see if both of them are truly straight, then you make the tongue. When the wood is thick, you trim the back of the tongue by chamfering [it] with the half-plane [ jack plane], so that the plane [the tongue plane] is easier to push. When the wood is rough and very thick, you need two workmen in order to push it, as I said in speaking of planes of two pieces, but the more it can be done by a single workman, so much the better for the work.
It is also necessary to take care that the joints be straight on the edges of the panels and that they fit equally on each side of the groove, even when the work is just a facing [a decorative panel, not structural]. Joints thus well brought together prevent the air from penetrating and, consequently, from warping the panels.
After having made the joints with all the precautions that I spoke about previously, you glue them together; and for this, you disassemble the boards from each other, after having numbered them, so as not to confuse the panels of one panel with those of another. After this, you heat the joints so that the heat opens the pores of the wood, preparing them better to take the glue and hold on to the joints. It is necessary, however, to pay attention that the wood not be too hot because it will dry the glue too promptly and prevent it from holding. As for the glue, it cannot be too hot [in other words, the hotter the glue, the better] because the heat makes all the glue components finer and delicate [less viscous] and consequently better to penetrate in all the pores of the wood.
The glue that Joiners use is called hard glue, which is of two types, namely that of England and that of Paris. These two types of glues are made with the sinew and feet of beef that you boil and melt into gelatin, after which you mold it into sheets of 8–9 feet in length by 5–6 in width and 2–3 lines thickness. When it is completely dry and it is of a good quality, it is both hard and also fragile as glass. That from England is the best, not only because it makes half again as much profit, but also because it holds better and its color being a clear yellow means that is does not appear in the joints when they are well done. You also have the glue of Paris that is not so strong, is black and muddy and it always shows in the joints, no matter how well made.
When you wish to melt the glue, you begin by breaking it in little pieces and you put it to soak in some water for 5–6 hours, after which you melt it on a fire in a copper cauldron.
You must observe not to put [in] too much water at first because it will remove some of its quality. You must also take care to stir it up with a wooden stick while it is melting, and when it is completely melted you let it boil on a low fire so as to make it re-heat. You should never leave the glue unattended once it begins to boil because at this time the force of the heat makes it froth and boil over out of the cauldron, which you prevent by adding a little fresh water when it is ready to boil over. The glue is easy to spoil and becomes tainted while you are melting it. That is why this task is best left to one individual man.
Dry glue is sold by the pound, and woodworkers who have a lot of work take care to provision it so that it always remains dry [unspoiled]. When you wish to melt it, you should take care not to melt too much at once, that is, you must not have melted more glue than you can use in eight days, especially in the summer because it molds and loses its quality. You heat it in a copper pot, which has three feet and an iron handle. The feet should be splayed to give it a stable position, but [they should] not [be] hooked and elevated at the ends because being thus configured [the cauldron] is subject to carrying some of the hot coals with it and to making [coals] fall in the wood shavings [when moving the cauldron around the shop], which is greatly to be feared. Cabinetmakers use a double-boiler pot, in the outer chamber they put the water and the glue in the inner one. This way of heating the glue is called a bain-marie [hot bath] and is very convenient because the water being very hot maintains the heat of the glue longer, while preventing the glue from burning at the edges of the pot, Figs. 12 & 13.
When the glue is hot, you spread it on the joints with a brush made of wild boar hair, which should be more or less large according to different works. Look at Figs. 14 & 15. Then you drive the joints together with a mallet. When there are many joints [complex joinery with many joints being assembled simultaneously] and you fear ruining them with the mallet, you turn them over and hit them on the bench, lifting first one end of a panel and making it fall straight with force on the bench. Then you do the same at the other end, which you continue to do until the joints are perfectly in place. Then you put them flat on the bench where you stop them using a bar/straightedge of the full length of the panel [that is] secured with holdfast, and you tighten the whole panel with clamps or on edges with clamps and bars, which holds them all along their length and closes them. Bar clamps are iron tools which are made of a bar of iron where the end is curved in the form of a hook, which passes through another piece of iron which is called the foot of the clamp, which glides along the length of the bar according to how you judge appropriate. The end of this clamp is curved in the form of a hook, as is the other end of the bar, and is textured at the face like a rasp, so that it [will] not slip when you tighten it but it [instead] holds onto the wood.
The mortise or eye of the jaw should be as accurate as possible, especially on its width, and be made a bit slanted on the inside of the foot on the side of the hook, so that when the bar clamp is tightened, the foot will always be at a right angle to the shaft, as least as much as possible. The end of the shaft/bar is hammered back to create a ridge [is “mushroomed”] so the hook cannot get past or get lost. Like most of the regular clamps you cannot remove the moving foot, Fig. 16.
This tool serves to hold the joints for both panels and for assembled pieces. You close it by hitting on its movable foot with a mallet below the bar, and you loosen it by hitting the latter on top with the hammer, that is to say, in the opposite direction. [It operates in a manner conceptually identical to the holdfast.]
The length of the bar clamps varies from 18 thumbs up to 6 and even 8 feet in length. As for the width of the bar, it should be from 9 lines up to a thumb-and-a-half, according to the different lengths, and their thickness should be two-thirds of the width. The foot should exceed the upper part of the bar by 3–4 thumbs for the smallest, and from 6 thumbs for the largest. The iron of the bar clamp parts should be soft and without any type of welding, especially the foot, which should be forged with all the care possible.
It is good that joinery shops be well furnished with bar clamps, especially those shops with many workmen, which is very convenient for accelerating the work. There are shops where there are up to 20 lengths of bar clamps of all sorts. When the work is of such great width that one cannot close it with bar clamps, you use a marking rod of wood, which is called a notch for elongating sergeants [bar clamp extender], which is 3–4 thumbs in width by 8–9 feet in length and a thumb-and-a-half thickness at least. At one end is made a hook, made equal to the width of the wood, which serves to close the work. On the other side of its width, and in the opposite direction, are many notches placed at 12–15 thumbs from each other, in which you place the end of a bar clamp, which is tightened on the other edge of the work. You must pay attention that the notches are made at a sharp angle, so the bar clamp jaw stops there and does not come out, Fig. 17.
There is still another way to clamp panels, which is done with wooden tools called straighteners [ from the verb etreindre, or to close tightly]. They are composed of two of pieces of wood called twins of 4–5 feet in length by 4–5 thumbs in width and 2 thumbs thickness, in which [at] 6–8 thumbs from the ends is pierced a squared mortise of about a thumb-and-a-half, which is in the center of its width, and through which you pass a shaft of 8–9 thumbs in length.
In the upper part of straighteners are pierced two or three other mortises similar to the first ones through which you pass another shaft of the same shape and length as the first one, Fig. 18.
When you wish to make use of straighteners to clamp a panel, you begin by placing [the parts] between the two twins, resting the panel on the lower inserted shaft. You then press the twins together to hold the panel flat. You then insert the shaft through the mortises above and closest to the panel, and with a mallet drive in a wooden wedge between the panel and the shaft.
There must be two straighteners at least to clamp a panel, and when it is long enough, you really should make use of three. Besides, the use of these tools is excellent, because they clamp panels without damaging them, which happens sometimes with bar clamps. But still, they hold the panels very straight, and they leave you the liberty to view them from both sides, which you cannot do when the panels are laid flat on the workbench, Fig. 19.
Edit: These are once again sold out. I _think_ we’ll have more later this week. The warehouse has just entered into inventory 125 Crucible Dovetail Templates – which means most of the production and packaging processes have been worked out. Whew! (Hopefully, we’ll soon be more reliably able to keep these in stock.)
The following is excerpted from “The Joiner & Cabinet Maker,” by Anonymous, Christopher Schwarz and Joel Moskowitz. The original short, book released in 1839, tells the fictional tale of Thomas, a lad of 13 or 14 who is apprenticed to a rural shop that builds everything from built-ins to more elaborate veneered casework. The book was written to guide young people who might be considering a life in the joinery or cabinetmaking trades, and every page is filled with surprises.
Unlike other woodworking books of the time, “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” focuses on how apprentices can obtain the basic skills needed to work in a hand-tool shop. It begins with Thomas tending the fire to keep the hide glue warm, and it details how he learns stock preparation, many forms of joinery and casework construction. It ends with Thomas building a veneered mahogany chest of drawers that is French polished. However, this is not a book for children. It is a book for anyone exploring hand-tool woodworking.
In our expanded version you’ll find the unabridged and unaltered original text; a historical snapshot of early 19th-century England; chapters on the construction of the three projects that show the operations in the book, explain details on construction and discuss the hand-tool methods that have arisen since this book was originally published; and complete construction drawings (you can download those files here).
With the glue dry, it’s time to ﬂatten one face of all of your panels. Thomas begins with the jack plane then moves to the trying plane, yet the details of the operation are sketchy in “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker.”
Early workshop practice was to use the jack plane (sometimes called the fore plane) across the grain of a panel. This operation, which Joesph Moxon called “traversing” in his “Mechanick Exercises” of 1678, allows you to remove a good deal of deal without tearing the grain too deeply. Working the grain diagonally in both directions allows you to get the board fairly ﬂat – Thomas checks the board with a straightedge as he works, which is always a good idea.
Note: When you work at 45° to the grain of a panel, you will typically see more tearing in one direction than in the other. This is normal. Just make sure you ﬁnish your diagonal strokes in the direction that produces less tearing.
Determining when a board is ﬂat can be a challenge. After some practice, you learn to tell by the way your planes respond when dressing the panel. The shavings become consistent in thickness, width and length all along the board. A straightedge can help. So can winding sticks, which aren’t mentioned in “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker.”
Winding sticks are two identical sticks that are longer than the board is wide. They are placed at several points across the width of the board and compared by eye. When the panel is twisted, the sticks aren’t parallel. And because they are longer than the board is wide, they exaggerate any wind. The author of “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” has a novel solution: Compare your panel to a known ﬂat panel. If your panel rocks on the ﬂat one, it’s in wind. Of course, the trick is getting that ﬁrst panel ﬂat. It’s possible to create two panels that are in wind but don’t rock on one another – the high spots of one panel nest into the low spots of the other and result in a false reading.
However, once you get one panel ﬂat, the method explained in the book works well.