The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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The lowdown.

This morning I did something which I rarely do; I read my own woodworking blog. I’m not sure exactly why, but I decided to check out some past posts. I guess I was looking to see if I had changed any regarding my woodworking philosophy, and the answer to that would be both yes and no. I might add that I actually really enjoyed most of what I read. I’m not sure if it’s proper to say that but I said it anyway.

One of the things I had noticed in the photographs of myself was that if I was standing at my workbench I was sort of craned over the bench looking a lot like the guy on the cover of Led Zepplin !V. I probably don’t have great posture, but I also don’t slouch anything like the guy in my woodworking “action” photos. The clincher came when I was looking at woodworking photos on Instagram and noticed the same thing among most of the woodworkers I saw. It led to the question: Are woodworking benches too low?

My bench is a shade under 34 inches high. When I’m not craning over my bench I am just over 5ft 11 inches tall, which I would consider average height. The conventional wisdom of the day when I built my bench was the lower the better. So I made my bench 33 inches tall, which fell into the height to bench height ratio that was recommended by the “experts”. Later, when I modified the bench top, it left me with my current workbench height. The new height is slightly more comfortable in my opinion, but here is what I noticed: the muscles in the middle of my back are often sore after I am at my workbench for a few hours. Here is something else I noticed: When I am at the work table I made for my job, which stands at just over 36 inches high, my back feels much better.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that the conventional wisdom of 5 years ago sucked. It made the mistake of copying a workbench that was made for the style of an 18th century woodworker who was also likely shorter in height than the average man today. A low workbench may be optimal if you use it to dimension thick boards by hand all day long using a large, wooden bodied plane, but it does not work for sawing, chiseling, carving, shaping, or just about any other hand tool task I can think of. I can only speak for myself, but I rarely dimension boards by hand, and I never do it with a large, wooden bodied plane, and even if I did it wouldn’t be an 8 hour long task. The other hand tool tasks I mentioned happen nearly every time I woodwork.

While I am not going to make any attempt at modifying my bench, if I were to make a new one I would probably make it at least an inch taller. Just around 35 inches tall seems like the perfect height for a guy my size. That added height would make sawing and chisel work easier, and shouldn’t really effect any hand plane work, in particular edge jointing. If you don’t believe me maybe you should check out Paul Sellers theory on workbench height. He is 5ft 10 inches and uses a bench 38 inches tall and that doesn’t seem to bother him in the least. I’ll take his word for it. What I won’t do is let somebody else do the thinking for me ever again. That never works out well.


The Collector

This past weekend my wife and I checked out our new local antique store for the first time. Neither of us are antiquers, but our local store is more of a “working class” establishment rather than a highfalutin destination for yuppies with too much money who like to pretend that they are cultured. And though there obviously were some expensive pieces of furniture among other items, most of the stuff was reasonably priced.

The tool and hardware section had a fair number of old mechanical tools and a pretty good selection of hardware, but not much in the way of woodworking tools. There were some old beading planes in good shape, a few braces, a some hand saws, and a small selection old hammers. I purchased a Hammond cobblers hammer which I felt would be useful (not to mention that it was made in my hometown of Philly), and also to support a local business. When I paid for the hammer I asked the proprietor if she often got woodworking tools in stock. She mentioned that if there was something I was interested in she would be more than willing to seek it out for me, but collectors generally “suck up” tools long before they make it into the store. I know it may not be very magnanimous of me to complain, but that statement bothered me.

I personally don’t know anybody who collects tools as a hobby, be they woodworking tools or something else. My own opinion is that as far as hobbies are concerned, you can do a lot worse than collecting tools. The coffin smoother I just obtained was admittedly purchased more to “have” than to use, though I do plan on using it on occasion. I also know that there is probably a collector or collectors out there who have thirty or more of those coffin smoothers among hundreds of other tools and their duplicates. The possible good part about this “tool hoarding” is these collectors are very likely people who enjoy old tools, and history, and they will do a nice job in preserving these implements. The possible bad news is there are definitely people out there with the time and capital to buy up every old tool they see in order to thin out the market and drive up the price. While I have no way to prove that happens with woodworking tool collectors, I know it happens with other “collecting” hobbies, so at that I am taking an educated guess.

The question is can and should something be done about it? My answer would be “no and no”. Because we live in a Capitalist society with a free market, we cannot keep people from hoarding tools any more than we can keep them from hoarding cans of soup. I’m not trying to knock the free market; like everything else it has its good points and bad. But I can have an opinion, and my opinion is that if you happen to be one of those people who buys up every decent used woodworking tool in order to sell them later at an 800% mark-up you are no better than the people who do the same thing during Christmas with Cabbage Patch Dolls. In other words, you’re a dick.IMG_1180.JPG

Borrowing cool tools

Sunday morning I was in my garage working on my coffin smoother plane when a neighborhood kid happened to be walking by the driveway. I watched out of the corner of my eye as he cautiously approached the opening. I turned to face him and he called out “I really like your tools!” And with that he was gone. I had thought about inviting him in, but in this day and age inviting a kid you don’t know into your garage is asking for trouble on many levels. In any event, the kid thought my tools were cool, and that’s all that really matters, doesn’t it?

The coffin smoother I recently refurbished was not a tool I needed, it was a tool I wanted only because I thought it was cool. The truth is I have two smoothers already, a Stanley #4 and one I made myself. Both of those tools work fine. This coffin smoother is as redundant as it gets when it comes to what I will use it for, but it’s freaking cool, and that’s all that matters.

Not too shabby out of the box

Not too shabby out of the box

Two things worried me going into this purchase; one was the condition of the wedge and the other was the condition of the cap iron. That is why I am glad for Patrick Leach, as I believe he is a guy who would not sell a plane with a bad wedge, at least not without telling you first. The wedge scared me because on planes like these they can be the fussiest part of the plane, and to make a new one is not easy, at least not for me. The cap iron scared me only because of my inexperience in dealing with vintage models. Happily, both the wedge and the cap iron were in remarkably good condition. I was particularly impressed with the wedge, which was as crisp as I’ve seen on an old plane.

The plane soul before flattening

The plane soul before flattening

Planed flat and smooth

Planed flat and smooth

I began the first part of the rehab on Friday night by flattening the sole of the plane. I decided to use my LN jack plane because it is by far my best and most accurate plane. I know that statement may upset some purists but it’s the truth. My jack plane is a near perfect design; it never gives me any trouble, and the only thing I ever had to do to it was sharpen the iron. If I have one complaint about it I would have to say it was the cap iron, which is an extremely well made part, but every so often I get shavings caught in it. But that is something that can be fixed. Anyway, I honed and stropped the iron, fastened the coffin plane in the leg vice, and started planing.

I set the jack plane to take very fine shavings. There was a high point just in front of and just behind the mouth, and hollows between the middle of the plane and the sides. Also, the front of the plane had some shallow nicks which needed removing. I proceeded cautiously, and after a few minutes it became clear that the leg vice was not the place for this job, so I clamped the plane between a Veritas wonder dog and a bench dog. The task did not take long, and I checked my work carefully. Once I was satisfied with the sole I used sheets of 220 and 320 grit sandpaper on the bed of my table saw to clean it all up. All in all the whole process lasted less than ten minutes.

The next step I copied straight from the Paul Sellers playbook. I used boiled linseed oil and 0000 steel wool to give the plane a thorough cleaning. When I took the plane out of the shipping box it seemed clean to begin with, but the steel wool did wonders, and the photos I took do not do it justice. The cleaning clearly revealed the plane to be a “ Varvill & Sons, Ebor Works, York” and above that “J. Strafford Bolton The Tool Depot”. Either of those marks I’m not familiar with, but I’m sure that somebody out there is. Once the plane was clean I wiped it down, took the cap iron/nut, soaked it in WD40, and called it a night.

Cleaned up-The photo does not do it justice.

Cleaned up-The photo does not do it justice.

Part two of the rehab I started on Sunday. I began by working on the bevel of the plane iron. I always thought that it was a hard and fast rule to always flatten the back of a plane or chisel before working on the bevel. But both Graham Haydon and Paul Sellers worked on the bevel first on their plane rehab videos. Maybe it’s a wacky English method, but I decided to go that route as well. The bevel was in nice shape, with a slight camber and a few small nicks. It was clear to me even before I began the grinding that this plane iron had been hollow ground. I am not a fan of hollow grinding in the least(which I will not get into on this post), but there was little I could do about it. So I progressed from 320 grit wet/dry sand paper, to the diamond plates, to the water stones, to the leather strop. It probably took near an hour, and I was dripping with sweat (woodworking still isn’t exercise, which I will also not get into on this post). I never did manage to completely grind out the hollow, but I did get the iron sharp. It’s not pretty, but it works. I then turned my attention to the back.

After 320 grit sandpaper. You can clearly see the hollow grind

After 320 grit sandpaper. You can clearly see the hollow grind

Makers mark is visible.

Makers mark is visible. “Ward”

During the initial inspection of the plane out of the box I noticed that the back was nice and flat across the face with no hollows, but from front to back had a slight hump. That concerned me at first, but when I reattached the cap iron that hump “straightened”. I’m not sure if this is a characteristic of this style iron/chipbreaker or not, but my concern was alleviated at that point. After the marathon with the bevel, the flattening of the back was mercifully fast and easy. I used the same sharpening mediums as for the bevel, and after 15 minutes I had an iron that was nice and sharp.

a picture my daughter snuck of me and my sunburn waxing the plane body

a picture my daughter snuck of me and my sunburn waxing the plane body

Buffing tool

Buffing tool

The last task of the rehab was cleaning up the grime on the iron and chipbreaker. The chip breaker had already been soaking in WD40, so I wiped that with steel wool, for the iron I used steel wool and linseed oil, same as with the plane. The cleaning revealed the iron to be manufactured by “Ward”, which is a maker I had heard of before.

The finished plane, once again the photo does not do it justice.

The finished plane, once again the photo does not do it justice.

Later, on Sunday evening, I added a coat of wax, buffed it off, and put the plane to work. The good news: The wedge and iron adjusted easily. I could seat it tightly and unseat it with just a firm tap of the hammer. I decided to use the plane to clean up the workbench top. Immediately I heard the throaty whisk that a wood-bodied plane resonates when it is working. The shavings were thick, so I backed off the iron and the shavings became better. In fact, I was able to take a shaving across the entire length of the bench top. Better news was the fact that the chip breaker did not trap any shavings, which is always a concern. The only not-so-good news was the sharpness of the iron. I think I can get it sharper; I know I can. But overall I am very pleased.

A table full of shavings.

A table full of shavings.

As of this moment the coffin smoother is perched along with most of my other planes on the new shelf above my workbench. I’m not sure how often I will actually use this plane, but that doesn’t concern me so much. There is something about these wood-bodied planes that has a timeless appeal. Quite obviously they were the only woodworking planes in existence for more than 1000 years, and at that they must have worked just fine. I don’t know the whole reason why the Bailey Style plane usurped the wood-bodied but I would guess that it had something to do with production methods. Some people may lament that fact, but I don’t, because the Bailey plane is a good plane, too.

Yet I can’t deny that the wood-bodied tools are special. I’ve heard dozens of different descriptions praising them: They have a warmth. They are more comfortable. They are aesthetically more appealing. Etc. The truth is, I agree. This smoother is extremely comfortable in the hand, and it does have a certain elegance that would make Obi Wan Kenobi proud. I love the way the sole of the plane feels silky smooth after it’s flattened; I love the way it sounds when it’s being used. I love the makers mark on the iron. It really is a beautiful tool.

The funny thing is that I don’t feel like I own this plane; I feel like I am borrowing it. I’m not trying to be all sappy because I’m not a sappy guy. But it feels like this plane will find another owner when I shuffle off this mortal coil. Maybe some of my other tools will as well. Who knows? But the next person who obtains this plane will be borrowing it, too. Borrowing it from me just as I borrowed it from its previous owner. I hope it isn’t a collector; I hope it is somebody just like me. Maybe they’ll see the tool and think the same things I thought. Maybe they’ll just think it’s cool, and worth saving, and worth using, because it will be.  And in the end, that is all that really matters.

English Charm

Because I am a low-grade narcissist (of course I’m a narcissist, I write a woodworking blog) I like to think that every idea I have was formulated without any outside influence. Like most narcissists, I like to believe that I am too clever to be influenced by anything but my own dazzling intellect. So when a few months back Graham Legend, I mean Haydon, posted on Popular Woodworking’s web page an article and video regarding the restoration of a coffin-style smooth plane, I grudgingly admit that I was fascinated. (If I can find the original article I will post a link to it). After watching that video and drooling like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I spent a good deal of time over the course of this year searching tool sales, EBay, and tool dealers to find a coffin-style smoother that was reasonably priced, yet in decent enough condition to restore. It took me from then until last week, but I finally found one on Patrick Leach’s web page,, that hadn’t already been sold, so I immediately jumped on the chance and purchased it.

The truth is I do not need a smoothing plane; I have a Stanley #4 that works perfectly. There really are only two explanations for why I purchased this tool. Firstly, I love the look of the coffin style plane, secondly, Graham Haydon is likely a Svengali. Maybe it’s his English accent, maybe it’s his writing, which somehow reads with an English accent, but everything he says or writes eerily resonates with me in a way that I can’t explain. Is it a man crush? Maybe. Want to hear something really scary? I did one of those silly quizzes on Facebook to determine who my most attractive friend was. Guess who the answer was? It wasn’t my lovely wife; it wasn’t the neighborhood hotty from 1988, If you guessed “Graham Haydon” you would be correct. In fact, I did the quiz twice just to be sure, and both times the answer was “Graham Haydon”. As a woodworker, Graham has such a strong strangle hold on me that I am certain that he is the only person who could convince me to sell my table saw and go full hand-tool commando.

As far as the tool, it arrived yesterday and like every tool I’ve ever purchased from Patrick Leach, it arrived completely as advertised. The body and wedge are in great condition. The iron assembly looks very good; there are a few minor nicks but nothing that shouldn’t be easily handled. The sole needs to be flattened. There is a high spot just behind the mouth, which I’ve found is the case with most wood-bodied planes. I truly look forward to restoring it, and while I’m going to try to keep the original “character” of the plane as much as possible, I have no problem in sanding or planing away patina if need be. I purchased the tool to use and in a lesser sense, learn from as well as “collect”, but I have no concern or worry in keeping its value for resale.

Coffin Style smoother. Appears to be made by Varnell & Sons?? York

Coffin Style smoother. Appears to be made by Varnell & Sons?? York

The assembled parts

The disassembled parts

View of the sole.

View of the sole.

I’ll try to post some photos of the process as it moves along as well as write about the progress of the restoration. Hopefully I will do a good job and the plane will become a valuable addition to my tool set. The worst case scenario is that it looks cool sitting on the shelf in my garage. It should be fun, and that’s all I’m asking. And before I forget, if anybody out there knows of a good witch doctor, or possibly an exorcist please let me know. I have a strange feeling that somebody out there is controlling my mind.

To make as utilitarian as possible.

I haven’t made a real piece of furniture since January. “Real” as in something that I researched, planned, and then proudly displayed in one of the rooms of my house. There are reasons for that, some which came from circumstances beyond my control, and others which were my own doing. January through March I didn’t build any furniture simply because we had a horrible winter and it was freezing in my garage. Later, we had to put out a lot of money for various odds and ends and that put purchasing wood on the back burner. Now, during the hottest (and most humid) part of the summer, I try not to make furniture because of the problems I have with warping (during August my garage is like a rain forest). But all of this doesn’t mean that my hands have been idle.

For the past few months I’ve mainly been doing two things as far as woodworking is concerned, maintaining tools, and trying to make my garage a better place for woodworking. Tool maintenance has actually been the easy part, as nearly every free moment I’ve had to putter around has been spend reorganizing my garage. Though I’ve written about a few of the things I’ve been doing, generally I haven’t blogged much about it, only because it doesn’t necessarily make for interesting reading or writing. But, yesterday I did complete something that I feel is worth mentioning.

Yesterday I built a shelf to hold my hand planes. I have come to the conclusion that I am tired of going in and out of a tool chest every time I want to grab a hand plane. I want to keep them visible and at arm’s length; keeping tools in a tool chest meets neither of my criteria. Before I go on let me just say that the following is hardly my best work. My theory on shop projects is simple: Don’t go overboard on building something that is going to get beat to hell. As I said, this is just a shelf. The only noteworthy aspect of building this shelf was the fact that I made it with nothing but hand tools. So the real question may be: Why go through all the trouble of building a basic shelf using hand tools and real joinery when I could have made it with butt joints and screws? Good question, and the answer is just for practice. Besides, the joinery on this shelf was simple, two fillisters, two dados, a groove, and nails. The sawing, fillisters, and dados were little trouble. The only detail I would really like to discuss is the groove on the back panel in which the shelf sits.

A place for hand planes

A place for hand planes

To make the groove and dados, I used a marking knife, a chisel, and a router plane. The dados were easy; they run across the grain and the knife line is generally easy to keep straight. The groove, which runs with the grain, is more difficult to mark because the knife obviously tends to follow the grain. The ironic part of the equation is that the sharper the knife, the more it tends to find minute grain variations. Those variations, as subtle as they may be, will show immediately when chopping out the waste, which leaves a jagged edge that appears to be gapped, especially in knotty pine. Though the dado is a snug fit, there are splinters along the wall at the top that make it look unsightly. On a piece of nice furniture this would be unacceptable, on a shelf that sits in my garage which will be used and abused it will not matter. I learned something while making that groove, which is why I built the project the way I did in the first place.

A little light sanding and planing, maybe a few pegs, and it will be ready to hang.

A little light sanding and planing, maybe a few pegs, and it will be ready to hang.

The rest of the project was easy. I assembled the shelf with cut nails and glue, beforehand planing everything smooth and adding some basic chamfers. Speaking of the smooth plane, knotty pine is the Pyrite of the planing world. Even a plane that is only reasonably sharp will make lovey shavings and make you think that your plane is just perfect; don’t be fooled. If you want to be sure that your smooth plane is sharp and functioning properly, I suggest using red oak, which is relatively inexpensive yet will give you true results.

And speaking of the groove, my ‘B Latt’ tip of the week is this: When making a groove or a dado by hand, the conventional wisdom is to use your chisel to remove the waste almost “to the line” and use the router plane to take of that final wisp of a shaving to make the bottom nice and smooth. I don’t agree with that. Experience has told me to use your chisel to remove the waste down to an 1/8 inch above your line, set the depth stop of your router plane to the finish depth, and remove the rest of the waste in increments. This method is the only way I’ve ever gotten consistent results, because nearly every time I’ve used a chisel and tried to get close to the finish depth, there has been a spot or two that blew out, or is a hair too low. Maybe that is just my inexperience, but nonetheless it happens. While using the router plane to finish the final 1/8 inch rather than the final 1/32 may take longer, the results are guaranteed.

Otherwise, the shelf is basically finished. The two boards I used were not perfectly even, so I need to plane flush anything that is sticking out, give the edges a light sanding, then I can hang it up and put my planes in place. As I said, this was not my best work nor was it meant to be. I’m not of the opinion that every little woodworking project needs to be made “as perfectly as possible”. I made this shelf in such a way that it should last a long, long time. It does not look great; it does not have intricate carving or scroll work, but it will hold my tools right where I want them to be, and that is all that really matters in the end.


Here is a photo of the finished shelf.

Shelf is not in place

Shelf is now in place

Leg man

When it comes to woodworking benches, I am a leg man. I think the legs/base are more important than the bench top, though that probably puts me in the minority in the circle of workbench experts. Nonetheless, my workbench has stout legs along with a leg vise. The leg vise is my favorite feature of the bench. There is more than twelve inches of space between the bench top and the screw, meaning I can easily clamp a board sixteen inches wide with no problems. A leg vise is extremely strong, relatively inexpensive, and easy to install, and most importantly it does a nice job. However, my leg vise does have one problem.

When I changed the configuration of my bench top several things happened: The bench top lost 6 inches of width and gained 7/8 of an inch in thickness. To make matters worse, the chop of my leg vise, which is made of oak, was damaged when a large piece of pipe fell onto it, so I had to remove 1/4 from the top. This left me with a chop that is more than 1 inch lower than the bench top. Originally, the chop was just 1/16th of an inch lower, virtually flush. This placement allowed me to clamp thinner stock yet still have the ability to plane or saw it without interference. I need to replace the chop of the vice immediately, in particular for the next few projects I have planned. But replacing the chop isn’t so much a concern as choosing which wood to use.

Low vice. You can still see some of the damage on the right corner.

Low vise. You can still see some of the damage on the right corner.

As I was saying, my current chop is oak. It has worked well, and I probably could go back to oak even if I just want to run to a home center and laminate two pieces together to get the needed thickness. At the same time, rather than spend $65 on a vise board, I am wondering if a 2×10 piece of framing lumber would work. Douglas Fir is strong yet flexible enough to serve as a leg vise; at least I think it is. I could easily pick through the stock at Lowe’s and find a nice board, clean it up, and shape it into a nice chop. The cost would be negligible, I am just not completely sure whether or not it will hold up. On my current vise I added two coats of boiled linseed oil to the chop, and other than the fact that it’s too short, it looks pretty good. I would have to think that a few coats of linseed oil and some wax would protect the chop and keep it in decent shape. I know that woods like fir tend to splinter, but I think it’s worth the risk.

In any event, if anybody has an opinion or some advice on the topic I would appreciate it. I know I like to pretend that I know everything, but I’m the first to admit when I need a little help, from time to time that is.

Something old.

My family and I spent a long Independence Day weekend at my in-law’s farmhouse in upstate Pennsylvania. The place is remote, as in no internet access, dirt roads, nearest town 25 miles remote. Thankfully I had a kindle to read because the weather wasn’t so nice, but unfortunately there was little to do but read, and woodworking was obviously out of the question. Yet I did make a few discoveries that I felt were interesting.
Firstly, the farm has been in my wife’s family since the end of World War 2, and because it was once a working farm, there are lots of old tools hanging about. I did just a little snooping around my wife’s grandfather’s old workshop and among the assortment found three Disston hand saws-two rip-filed, in excellent condition, a Disston one-man and two-man cross cut saw, about half a dozen braces of various sizes, a chair making scorp, an adze, several draw knives, a few Stanley block planes, an ancient smoother, and a large assortment of files, chisels, bits, hammers and mallets and hatchets, among boxes of old hardware etc. I don’t think my wife’s grandfather was necessarily a woodworker, though I would be sure that he at least dabbled., rather, these tools were used in and around the farm.
Though I have been to the farmhouse many times, this was in actuality the first time I really got an in-depth look at all of the tools at once.  I even considered asking if I could bring a few of the tools home and work on them, but I did not want to overstep my bounds. Though my wife and I have been married for nearly 12 years, and we’ve been together for 16 plus, there are still certain things that you don’t ask your father-in-law, and one of them is to borrow and work on his inherited tools. And though the tools were interesting to look at, perhaps the most interesting thing I found was an issue of Popular Mechanics from 1952.
At first, I thought the issue was a reprint simply because I couldn’t imagine that it would have survived for 60 years. But sure enough, I checked and double-checked, and triple checked and indeed it was an original copy. 1952 was significant in terms of the magazine because it just so happened that this was a 50th anniversary issue, as the magazine began publication in 1902. One article in particular was telling, as it showed an advertisement of woodworking machines available for sale in 1902, and most appeared to be treadle or hand powered. Also, one page showed a list of “Your Grandfather’s Woodworking Tools” which included a wood jack plane, a brace w/bits, some chisels, etc. I took a few photos of the pages, but I stupidly did not take any pictures of the “new” power tools sold to replace the old hand powered ones. I also missed the opportunity to take photos of the advertisements for not only tools, but lots of other items that are no longer readily available.

Plan for a closet banquet cupboard.

Plan for a closet banquet cupboard.


Your grandfather's woodworking tools.

Your grandfather’s woodworking tools.

out with the old...

out with the old…

Craftsmanship gets a "new" face.

Craftsmanship gets a “new” face.

As you can imagine, the magazine was not in the best of shape, and I handled it as little as possible it so as not to destroy it, but what I saw made for some interesting reading. Companies such as Atlas, Millers Falls, Greenlee, Stanley, and Craftsman were well represented in the pages. Interestingly enough, the article concerning the power tools makes the case that those very tools made the hobby of woodworking a possibility for thousands, if not millions of people, in essence stating that power tools created the hobby of woodworking, at least on a large scale. While I do woodwork with handtools far more than I do with power tools, I don’t advocate one method over the other, yet I do agree with that conclusion.

I’ve said before that without the advent of homeowner level power tools,  which many so called hand-tool advocates love to insult and denounce, none of us would be here today talking about how great it is to woodwork with hand tools. There would be no hand tool “renaissance”, because the hobby of woodworking likely wouldn’t exist, at least not how most of us know it, and that is something to think about.

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