Years ago I had a set of Barr Tools bench chisels that I loved but were a little frustrating. I loved them because the steel was amazing – as good or better than any Japanese chisel I had encountered. But they were frustrating because the chisels were heavy. Chopping with them all day wore me out.
I reluctantly let them go when Lie-Nielsen began making chisels. The steel isn’t as tough as the stuff in Barr tools, but the Lie-Nielsens are lightweight and balanced.
Last year I decided I’d had enough of my vintage wide chisel. It was a beautiful specimen, but the steel was terrible. It folded like aluminum foil after a few minutes of use. I ground the edge back significantly to see if the steel got any better. It didn’t.
I pondered rehardening and tempering the tool, but then decided to stick to woodworking that week and bought the Barr 2” cabinetmaker’s chisel ($147) instead. After a few weeks of use, I remembered how much I loved the steel Barr uses. It sharpens in seconds and holds an edge for much longer than I think it should.
And when it comes to a wide chisel, the extra weight is welcome and appreciated. The weight helps when I pare with the chisel, much like the weight of a timber framing slick. The handle has a hoop on the end, which implies that the chisel can take a beating. It can.
I used this chisel to bash out all the mortises in my most recent workbench and I didn’t have to sharpen once. Crazy.
I love the tool so much that I bought Megan Fitzpatrick one for her birthday. (I don’t think that’s what she wanted for her birthday, but that’s how enthusiastic I am about this tool.)
The Barr tools are handmade, so there can be a little bit of a wait at times. But it’s worth it.
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!
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.