George Walker made the lovely set of walnut try squares shown above, following the step-by-step instructions in Chapter 4 of “Euclid’s Door.” (I don’t know if he had to refer back to his own writing or not…I know I sometimes do!) If you’re interested in adding them to your tool kit, leave a comment on this post by noon on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023. I’ll pick a random winner from among all commenters that afternoon, and send them out as soon as I get the winner’s address. Below are the introductory paragraphs to the try squares chapter.
I spent my early years as a machinist in a bearing factory in Ohio. A string of red brick buildings that employed thousands of workers. Making bearings is all about precision and the heart of that was a department called the “Cold Room,” an island kept at 67°F and constant humidity behind a set of heavy double doors. The workers inside wore white shop coats and stood at benches with chrome-plated vises. They were the high priests who guarded that precision. Most of us regular shop rats avoided the cold room if we could. The factory was Africa hot in the summer and stepping in and out of the cold felt hellish. Reluctantly, I paid a visit one hot August afternoon. I’d just bought a precision engineer’s square and needed to get it certified. An engineer’s square has a steel fixed blade made to a high level of accuracy. A bored looking lab technician with tobacco-stained fingers took my square and placed it in a machine called an optical comparator – sort of an industrial microscope that projected the silhouette of my square onto a screen. He slid my square up against the side of a master square, a perfect steel cylinder with a mirror-like finish, and the comparator shined a light beam from behind to measure its accuracy. Any variation showed up as a sliver of light that the machine could magnify and measure.
That was years ago, but when I think about it now, a couple of things stand out. In a modern precision setting, we used essentially the same method to check for square that builders have used for thousands of years. Hold it up to a light and variation shows up glaringly. Secondly, the comparator exaggerated the error through some fancy optics to precisely measure variation from true. In this chapter we will go through the building of a set of wooden try squares and learn some geometric methods to create then test it. We can produce a tool that has an astounding level of precision.
If you order either of these titles before Oct. 1, you will receive a free pdf download of the book(s) at checkout. After Oct. 1, the pdf and book will cost more.
“Euclid’s Door” is Jim and George’s latest exploration of artisan geometry. In this new book they show you how to build a set of highly accurate and beautiful wooden layout tools using simple geometry and common bench tools. This practical application of geometry will train your hands and mind to use this ancient wisdom. And you’ll end up with a fantastic set of useful tools.
After editing all of George and Jim’s books, I thought I had a pretty good handle on the geometry stuff. I was wrong. This book blew my mind a few times with stuff I should have known. (And now I’m glad I do.)
The book is 8.5” x 11” and 120 pages. It is printed in the USA and is built to be a permanent book, with heavy cover boards and a binding that is glued and sewn.
My latest book, “Sharpen This,” is the book I wish I had when I was learning woodworking. It might have saved me hundreds of dollars of buying sharpening equipment I didn’t need. And saved me time in learning how to grind, hone and polish.
This book is a short and blunt treatise about common bench tools: chisels and planes mostly. (Exotic tools and saws need their own books, really.) It seeks to explain how sharpening really works and what you need to do the job well – and no more.
It is not about one sharpening system. It’s about all of them. It is not trying to sell you some stones or jigs or magic paper. Instead, it is trying to give you the foundational knowledge you need in sharpening so you can make good decisions and – perhaps more importantly – ignore the vast piles of sharpening crap that companies are trying to sell you.
The book is 4” x 6.5” and is 120 pages. The book is printed and bound in the USA using quality materials and a sewn binding. It is designed to last a lifetime. “Sharpen This” is the same trim size as “The Woodworker’s Pocket Book,” and easily fits in the slipcases made by Texas Heritage.
After a long dry spell – the last book we sent to press was in December – we now have four books on press. (Actually, we have five books if you count the somewhat-cursed edition of Moxon’s “Mechanick Exercises” that has been on press for six months. More on that below.)
Today we finished our work on two books and won’t see them again until a semi backs up to the warehouse in 11 weeks. You can sign up to be notified when any of these books arrive in the warehouse on this page.
“The Belligerent Finisher” by John Porritt. This is our first book devoted to finishing, and it is a doozie. Porritt, a furniture restorer and chairmaker, shows many of the tricks he uses to add subtle (and beautiful) wear and age to a new piece. Porritt is not attempting to show you how to make fakes. He is trying to show you something deeper – how to add color and texture to a piece so its form matches its finish. Most of his processes use simple and common tools (a chainmail pot scrubber, a deer antler, a handheld propane torch, washing powder). The book walks you through all the steps for two backstools. Then there’s a gallery that shows how you can mix and match these techniques on other pieces. The book should arrive in our warehouse in September.
“Sharpen This” by Christopher Schwarz. I think of this book as a piece of historical fiction. What if someone wrote a book about how to sharpen, and that person wasn’t making sharpening equipment. And the internet didn’t exist. This is a pocket-book-sized treatise that boils down everything I know about sharpening media, steel and technique to give the reader a clear understanding of sharpening. The book embraces all the sharpening systems. But it focuses on how to work with a minimum amount of expensive gear. And how to work fast. This is a book I never wanted to write. But after teaching so many beginners who were so horribly confused, I decided to just lay it all out there. The book should arrive in our warehouse in September.
“Euclid’s Door” by George Walker and Jim Tolpin. Geometry lovers rejoice. Jim and George are back with a new book about how to make your own insanely accurate woodworking layout tools using simple hand tools and geometry that blew our minds. Honestly, both Megan and I had to step into the shop to confirm some of the geometric constructions really worked (they do). If you have been resisting geometry and whole-number ratios, this book will show you how to apply it directly to tools that you will use for the rest of your life. Really good stuff – and the book is entirely hand-illustrated by Barb Walker and Keith Mitchell. The book should arrive in our warehouse in late August.
The Stick Chair Journal No. 1. A crazy experiment. Can we make a beautiful journal about vernacular chairs and have it be slightly more successful than our money-losing posters? The first issue has techniques you can use, a tool review, folklore about a cursed chair and complete plans for a new vernacular chair design, which you are free to build and sell if you like. When you buy the journal you will also receive a download of the full-size patterns for the chair. The Journal should arrive in our warehouse in late August.
You can sign up to be notified when these books arrive in our store. It’s a simple process, and it is 100 percent not marketing. We are not trying to trick you into signing up for ads or some worthless newsletter. It’s a notification service that costs a lot of money to use. But we encourage you to please use it to make your life easier.
Oh, and about that cursed edition of Moxon’s “Mechanick Exercises.” That has been at the printer since December. Then the plant shut down because of COVID. Then it shut down because of ransomware. Then they printed one of the signatures with a missing page and had to redo the signature. The whole situation is almost laughable.
The plant told me they would ship those books on June 24. I’m not holding my breath.
After long delays because of shortages of clay and glaze, we now have a fair number of our handmade coffee mugs back in stock and ready to ship.
Made by an artists’ collective in Minnesota, these mugs are outstanding for the workshop, with a wide base that makes them difficult to knock over (our cats have tried….). The generous handle makes them easy to pick up, even if you have gloves on.
Both our coffee mugs and steins are made by Grey Fox Pottery, and are as high-quality as our books and our tools. Because of continued shortages, which are an everyday thing these days, order now to avoid disappointment as we likely will run out of these in short order.
Books Going to Press
After a long dry spell, Megan and I are getting three books to press this month. “Euclid’s Door” by George Walker and Jim Tolpin is at the final proofing stage where we review the pages for problems on press. This book continues George and Jim’s exploration of workshop geometry that they began with “By Hand & Eye.” This book shows you how to put geometry to work to make beautiful and useful workshop tools, everything from a wooden try square to a panel gauge. As always, their work is eye-opening and mind-bending.
This book should be released this fall.
Today I am sending off the final pages of The Stick Chair Journal to pre-press. This annual publication is an obsession-driven personal project. If you are interested in nerdy chair stuff (and the occasional wild folk tale), you might enjoy the Journal. We are doing only one press run of the Journal. If you wish to be notified when it is released this fall, go here.
Finally, Megan is working with John Porritt to finish up work on “The Belligerent FInisher,” an outstanding little book on how to add aged-looking finishes to new pieces. Porritt is a lifelong professional chairmaker and antiques restorer. His methods are simple and surprisingly effective. If all goes to plan, this book will also be out this fall.
More news to come on future books, maybe even a book on Dutch tool chests?
On Thursday, it was official: George Walker and Jim Tolpin handed over to Lost Art Press all the text and illustrations for their next book, “Euclid’s Door,” and I’ve just begun the initial edit. The book is about ancient layout tools, and what they can teach us…as George’s introduction below tells us. The book – which features illustrations by Barb Walker and Keith Mitchell – will be out later this year. – Fitz
Belly Hill is a hump in the sprawling wheat fields in southern Turkey. It kept its secrets hidden except in the spring when local farmers snagged their plows on blocks of limestone beneath the soil. Then in 1996 a group of German archeologists took a closer look. What they found turned human history on its head. They unearthed a temple complex known today as Gobekli Tepe, a massive 12,000-year-old building site sprawling across 22 acres, much of it still unexplored.
Scores of giant rectangular stone columns, some more than 20’ high arranged in circles, ovals and triangles. Much of the stonework is decorated with elaborate carvings of spiders, snakes and lions. Stuff that must have haunted the dreams of those early builders. Scholars debate who made those carvings and what they reveal about the builders. The most amazing thing is the early date. The complex goes back 12 millennia. Humans weren’t thought to have built things on this grand scale that far back. This was long before the invention of writing, before pottery, even before the invention of agriculture. It was built by a hunter-gatherer culture. That wasn’t supposed to happen. It was previously thought that nomadic hunters lived so close to the edge that they didn’t have resources to devote to architecture. So much for that theory.
When Jim Tolpin and I first read about the dig, we didn’t marvel at the elaborate carvings of snakes and spiders; we noted these builders had a working knowledge of artisan geometry. They understood plumb and level and were able to fabricate large stones with precise flat surfaces and right angles. They obviously possessed a skill-set and tool set that gave them tremendous creative power .
Over the last 10 years we’ve explored how artisans harnessed the truths of geometry throughout history. We began close to home, looking at early American furniture and quickly moved back in time to the Renaissance in Europe. From there, a clear path took us back to ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt, with a few side trips into Asia. Now we find the same thread ties back to prehistoric builders. Yet the structures on the Gobekli Tepe are so developed and refined, it implies that the knowledge about artisan geometry goes way back, deep back.
Tools of the Imagination Just what was their tool set? Given the scale and complexity of the work, it’s hard to imagine that these early builders spitballed this into existence without the aid of layout and design tools. Flint cutting tools and stone hammers survived, but any tools made of wood or fiber are long gone. No doubt they could have used strings to mark layouts and rough cuts on slabs of stone. A string with a weight attached could also gauge level and plumb. But those smooth flat surfaces and sharp right angles cry out for a sophisticated tool kit to tackle those problems. How did they make a stone (or board) flat and free from twist? How did they execute a corner so they could butt two stones (or boards) together and marry together perfectly?
Most woodworkers are curious about tool marks left behind. It might be the slashes left by an axe on timbers in an old barn or the stray cuts left from a backsaw. We can’t help ourselves. We pull out drawers and look closely at dovetails or crawl under a table to feel the wavy surface left by a scrub plane. Cutting tools leave their distinctive footprints, and another family of tools in the builders’ kit leave their marks hidden in plain sight. An axe or gouge leaves a texture we can see and feel, but some tools leave behind their shadows hidden in plain sight, evidence of artisan geometry at work. Boards that are flat and free of twist with square edges so they can be joined together are a different sort of signature. They are the ghosts artisan geometry left behind and they hint at the tools that created those ghosts. Some of these tools create layout lines that are later erased by a handplane or covered when joinery is knocked together tight and solid. We don’t often think of these ghosts as tool marks, but they speak to us about a set of tools used from ancient times.
In fact, you could divide tool marks and their tools into two categories. One group is for shaping and forming. They leave the marks we can feel with our fingertips. A second group are tools of the imagination that we use to help us with design and layout. They leave a picture of artisan geometry at play. Both sets of tools have something in common. They both flow from the wellspring of artisan geometry, a deep understanding of points, lines and simple shapes. For as long as humans have been building, they have used tools to connect with the universal truths of Geometry. Tools not only help us to cut, smooth and manipulate wood and stone, they help us to harness geometry to create order from chaos. Tools were not just an extension of our hands, they were the means to extend the truths of geometry into the built world.
Ex Nihilo We can guess about how early humans made technological leaps. It’s not a stretch to think that fires ignited by lightning gave our ancestors a familiarity with fire and the possibilities it offered. A round stone rolling down a hill may have led to the idea of the wheel. Yet how would early humans have stumbled onto the mysteries and possibilities offered by straight lines and right angles? It even seems a larger leap to fabricate tools that could harness these mysteries. Perhaps an account of this will never be understood, but the evidence left by these early builders leaves no doubt that they understood artisan geometry.
These tools that harness the power of geometry generate and prove a handful of geometric truths or axioms, i.e. a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. Yet, long before humans wrote these truths down, they harnessed the power of straight lines, parallel lines, right angles and a number of common angles, such as 45° miters. The one common thing about all these geometric truths is that they are all self-proving. A straight edge can prove itself, a try square or a miter square can prove itself. Just to be clear, every project in this book has a section where we prove the tool. This differs from the geometry you learned in junior high where proofs were expressed as theorems you had to memorize. Although all of the proofs we use could be expressed with theorems, that’s not what we are after. Every proof we use is a physical confirmation we can see or feel. Forget about numbers, they just get in the way. This self-proving property of geometric truths allows them to be created ex nihilo (out of nothing) and this is what we harness in this book to create our elegant set of design and layout tools.
Like the discovery of fire, some inquisitive ancestor of ours may have fussed about with a couple of straight sticks, trying to get them to fit tightly together. Slowly the realization came that the pair of sticks could be used to correct each other. Shave a tiny bit of material from one and it points out the imperfection in the other. Finally they reach an almost magical level of perfect straightness. Then these sticks could become tools that could be used to impart straightness (and flat surfaces) to stones and logs. Our ancestors could have become familiar with these tools of geometry because like the lightning generating fire, the truths of geometry were right at their fingertips. They just needed to become familiar with them, then begin to harness them.
Even though this knowledge goes back into the depths of time, the truths of geometry are still valid, and mastery of geometry is still powerful and brimming with possibilities. In this book we are going to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors both distant and near. We’ll be exploring artisan geometry with sharp tools. Plenty of knife lines and saw cuts. You’ll see the truths of geometry in three dimensions on your workbench – a much better way to grasp these secrets of our craft. We walk through the building of a set of layout tools found in a typical cabinetmaker’s tool chest. Tools that were frequently user made. Jim and I began making these tools ourselves out of curiosity. We came to realize that the process of making these tools results in much more than the tools themselves (which are in fact quite amazing). Today we think of these tools as teachers that take us on a journey into the secrets of artisan geometry. They develop skills important to the craft. These builds equip both the imagination and the hands.