When we think of Thomas Chippendale, let us never forget his greatest achievement: Cutting his dovetails tails-first. That, and trolling the Frenchies in his workshop for cutting the joint in the opposite manner.
And chairmaker Robert Manwearing, who shall be forever remembered for keeping his chisels sharp with Belgian coticule stones only. None of that low-rent Turkey-stone rubbish with a loogie for lube. (If it ain’t from the Ardennes, it’s crap.)
We all know that Batty Langley was perhaps the world’s biggest fiend for sloping gullets, especially when it came to backsaws he filed for cutting miters. Whilst some might remember his pamphlet “The City and Country Builder’s and Workman’s Treasury of Designs,” his true fame came when he switched to Swiss triangular files, changing the face of the craft forever.
George Hepplewhite worked secretly in metric, which is why the “Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide” remains one of the most sought-after pattern books of the late 18th century. The base 10 that is hidden in plain sight in that book will blow your mind, as it has blown the skulls of secret metricians for generations.
And let us never forget Robert and James Adam, who used only second-hand tools that were scrounged from carriage boot sales. They made their own tack rags with only the finest waxes – carnauba, bee and ear – which is why every student at North Bennet Street dresses up as one of the brothers at Halloween.
We will never forget our woodworking heros: William Morris used only a 1:7 dovetail slope to bring handcrafted furniture to the masses. Charles Rennie Mackintosh insisted on a 30° primary bevel and a 5° back bevel on his plane irons, which is why the Glasgow School endures. Gustav Stickley used only laminated steel chisels, which changed the course of furniture design between 1898 and World War I.
And – of course – Sam Maloof used only Titebond II, which spawned two generations of imitators to his curvaceous, Titebond II style.
If you are a diligent woodworker you have a sharpening station, all your edge tools are clean and sharp and your sharpening stones nice and flat. How about your mind? Sharp, or nice and flat? What about your truthiness? It turns out the lowly whetstone has a few lessons to sharpen your mind and test your honesty.
‘The Whetstone of Witte’
Robert Recorde, Welsh mathematician and physician, published a wonderful book on algebra (stay with me), “The Whetstone of Witte,” in 1557. He opened his book, which has the first known use of the equal (=) sign, with a poem.
He explains the whetstone in relation to tools: “Dulle thinges and harde it will so chaunge/And make them sharpe, to right good use.” Recorde continues and advises the student what can be gained by studying his book. “Here if you lift your wittes to whette/Muche sharpness thereby shall you gette.” Delightful and in a math book!
Now, a riddle for woodworkers from a late 18th-century children’s chapbook titled, “A New Riddle Book, Or, A Whetstone for Dull Wits.”
Couzen or cozen = to deceive.
The ‘Other’ Definition
On we go to the punitive and satirical side of whetstones. This is from the 1955 edition of “Dictionary of Early English” edited by Joseph T. Shipley.
The definition continues with a record of punishment for deceit and other examples of usage. The primary sources for these were relatively easy to find and so down the rabbit hole we go.
Punishment of the Pillory and Whetstone
In the Letter Books of the City of London from 1412 there is an account of the deceit of William Blakeney, a shuttlemaker. “Under the guise of sanctity” and also barefoot and with long hair he pretended to be a hermit and “under colour of such falsehood he had received many good things from divers persons.” As a skilled craftsman he was capable of supporting himself but for six years he “lived by such lies, falsities, and deceits, so invented by him, to the defrauding of the people.”
“It was adjudged that said William should be put upon the pillory for three market-days, there to remain for one hour each day, the reason for the same being there proclaimed; and he was to have, in the meantime, whetstone hung from his neck.”
Son of a…
In “The Busie Body: A Comedy” a play written in 1709 by Mrs. Susanna Centlivre, we have another use of whetstone. Sir Francis Gripe is guardian to Miranda and Marplot. (Gripe is also in love with Miranda.) Marplot is described as a silly fellow and very “Inquisitive to know every Body’s Business, generally spoils all he undertakes, yet without Design.” In one response to Sir Francis he declares :
Philosopher’s Stone vs. Whetstone
This next reference is a canto from “Hudibras” a satiric poem written by Samuel Butler that was published in several parts beginning in 1663.
“The rate of whetstones in the kingdom” is explained in an 1819 annotated copy of the poem as a proverbial expression, in which, “an excitement to lie was called a whetstone.” The annotation also gives direction to a 1572 Puritan Manifesto directed towards Queen Elizabeth in which the term “lying to a whetstone” is found.
The best whetstone reference, also from the annotations, is from a “smart repartee” between Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Kenelm Digby. In one corner we have Sir Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor of England, philosopher and father of scientific method (yay!). In the other corner Sir Kenelm Digby, a natural philosopher, alchemist, proponent of “powder of sympathy” and described by the scholar Henry Stubbe as “the very Pliny of our age for lying.”
The two men were before King James, “to whom Sir Kenelm Digby was relating, that he had seen the true philosopher’s stone in the possession of a hermit in Italy; and when the king was very curious to understand what sort of stone it was, and Sir Kenelm much puzzled in describing it; Sir Francis Bacon interposed, and said, perhaps it was a whetstone.”
If your mind is sharp, your heart true, and you only want to sharpen some tools, the blog has a plethora of posts on sharpening. You can find the one to which I am most partial here.
In addition to the Malodorous Mallet Co., we’re pleased to announce this blog is also sponsored by the Hold Harmless Clamp Co., makers of the No Dent Left Behind Squeezy Clamp. Hold Harmless clamps are prized for their patented “Released on their own Recognizance” technology, where the clamp pops open without any assistance whatsoever from the user. Amazing.
Lately, I’ve been thinking, “Why not grab some of this internet sponsorship cash?” And so we have taken on a sponsor – the Malodorous Rubber Mallet Co. I’ve agreed to use the company’s mallets in social media photos and will be impartially reviewing the mallet against all other mallets ever made in this dimension (and others) in the coming weeks.
All I can say at this point is that this mallet is so good that you can smell it coming. It offers the Perfume of Percussion. The Whiff of Whacking. The Bouquet of Beating.
You may have noticed that Chris and I have been making a lot of chairs recently. In the past few months, we’ve made a few incremental improvements and changes to our processes that make charmaking easier, more accurate and more enjoyable.
But now, we think we’ve come up with a tool that will revolutionize your chairmaking process – and rather than just write it up, the millennial-in-residence (that’s me) decided to make a flashy video to share our innovation with you.
So, please enjoy the video below about our latest innovation, the “Chairmaker’s Sighting Square” – and scroll past the video for the necessary files to make your own.