The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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It was bloody torture.


Many woodworkers at some point find themselves enamored by the siren song of old tools. Old tools can be great. They have a history, they were often well made, they are often less costly than a new tool, and many of them simply look cool. Old tools can be an appealing choice to a woodworker looking to build up his/her tool set. In fact, quite a few woodworkers swear by old tools, and will not even bother going the new tool route; their logic being: they were well made, there’s still a lot of them to be found, and with some work they can be turned into a high quality tool that will last a life time. If you happen to be a woodworker who subscribes to the “old tool only” philosophy, and you’ve never attended a woodworking tool show, I would suggest that you stop reading right here.

Last Saturday, my wife, daughter, and father-in-law accompanied me to the Hearne Hardwoods open house in Oxford PA. There, you could not only browse through a world-class selection of hardwood lumber of every species imaginable, you could also get your hands on tools from Lie Nielsen, Matt Bickford, Daniel Schwank of Redrose Productions, and Blackburn tools among others. And after 30 minutes or so of using these tools, you will find yourself never wanting to purchase an old tool again.

I spoke to Matt Bickford briefly, and he mentioned something that I have also written about before: If you’ve never used a high quality and well tuned new tool, how in the world can you know how to restore an old tool? In my experience, the answer is: You Can’t.

Some of Matt Bickford's planes.

Some of Matt Bickford’s planes.

I enjoy old tools as much as anybody; I own several, and I even detailed my own restoration processes of some of those tools right here on this blog. And while I can’t say that I will never purchase an old tool again, last weekend may have just pushed me back to the dark side of new tools. And one more thing, the argument can no longer be made that new tools are not as aesthetically pleasing as the antiques, because they look as good, or in many cases better, than most old tools I’ve come across. I was particularly impressed with both Bickford’s and Dan Schwank’s planes. In fact, after a half dozen shavings with Dan Schwank;s panel raiser, I nearly plunked down the money right there to put one on order. (My daughter was much more impressed with his spill plane).

Just a smattering of the many Lie Nielsen tools on display

Just a smattering of the many Lie Nielsen tools on display

As far as the Lie Nielsen tools are concerned, most woodworkers are aware of how good they really are. For my part, I had my sights set on either a tenon saw or a low angle block plane, because those are both tools that I could use. I messed with the tenon saw for a while and it worked great, and even my unskilled ass was able to saw a pretty respectable tenon without a marking gauge or even a pencil. The tenon saw was absolutely beautiful, and obviously well made, but it was also larger than I am used to working with. I have a Spear and Jackson (old tool) small tenon saw that I’ve used for quite some time, and though it probably needs another sharpening (it was also the first saw I’ve ever sharpened) it does a nice job. So instead I went with the block plane, the main reason being the only working block plane I have is one I made from a kit from Hock Tools. The kit block is actually a great little tool, with it’s Hock iron (easy to get razor sharp), it serves as a handy trimming tool and well as a nice option for cleaning up localized rough spots, but it can’t trim end grain, and the iron isn’t wide enough for working on edges (for the most part). I’ve used the LN 60 1/2 before, so I already knew just how good it is, but I did give it a test run at the show, and even my daughter was able to make some “curlies” with it. So I placed the order for the plane as well as a cap nut screw driver. The screw driver came home with me, the plane arrived at my house 4 days later.

Sure is pretty

Sure is pretty

cap nut driver

cap nut driver

Last night I gave the block plane and some other tools a honing/polishing. The iron was very sharp out of the box, so it really only needed to be polished. There was a very slight hollow dead center of the bevel that I left as it was. I polished the back, which took around five minutes solid, so that it was “shiny” across the whole front. I gave the plane a test run and it worked brilliantly. I have a new theory on sharpening and honing which is to spend a minute or less on each honing of the bevel, but that will be for another post.

My daughter posing with some of the incredible millwork at Hearne Hardwoods.

My daughter posing with some of the incredible millwork at Hearne Hardwoods.

So my trip to the tool show was a success. I got out of there without dropping a fortune, got to meet some top notch tool makers, and got to play with some of the best woodworking tools in the world for a little while. It was fun, the brick oven pizza was awesome, and I know what I want to ask Santa for this coming Christmas. I just wish I had a little more time and a lot more money, because if I did you all would be looking many more new tool photos right around now.



  1. Greg Merritt says:

    Congrats. i agree with your assessment on restoring an old tools. Restoring and setting up an old tool is a steep learning curve if you have never used a properly setup version of that tool before.

    • billlattpa says:

      Yup. Nearly all of my original hand tools were hand me downs. Luckily I took a woodworking class with Chuck Bender and he got me going down the right path.

  2. Back in the 70’s when I was just starting out, Lie-Nielsen didn’t exist. Even good Stanley planes were hard to come by. So, I learned from the tools that I could find, made a few planes that I still use. It took me years to get really good at sharpening.

    I just finished fettling a decent new Japanese plane that a friend gave me several years ago, and it makes those silky translucent shavings like you see on YouTube videos. I learned a bit from the tuning process, that’s the take-away. Most planes can be improved with a bit of careful scraping.

    A plane is elemental, a chisel set in a block of wood (or metal, or wood and metal) and the tap-tap adjustment of a well-seated iron is quick and certain in a quality tool regardless of its age. With Lie-Nielsen’s planes you are getting more accurate adjustment hardware than with old Stanley’s, but the difference is the result of the precision inherent in CNC machines.

    Finding chisels for timber framing was a different challenge altogether. Sorby framers are about the equivalent of a Marples Blue Chip (mediocre crap) and Hock wasn’t in the business, yet. So, once again, finding and restoring old English and American tools was the only way to have the edge.
    If I had just waited for something new and improved to come along…maybe I could have been selling widgets for the last thirty years instead of making a living as a woodworker.

    • billlattpa says:

      When it comes to the LN adjusting mechanisms, I agree with you completely. There is not an old tool I’ve come across that adjusts as nicely as a LN or Veritas, and that includes tools that have already been refurbished. I think with LN (or any quality maker) the biggest advantage is in knowing that you are generally getting a tool that is free of any defects, flat, sharp, and ready to go out of the box. I own just a handful of LN tools, but every one of them I could have used immediately, though like most woodworkers I always hone new tools before using them.
      I’m hardly an expert at refurbishing old tools, but I have done a decent amount. I enjoy doing it, but as a hobbyist, I don’t have the amount of free time I would like to both make furniture and restore tools, or at least enough tools to make a woodworking kit. So it’s been a little bit of buying new tools, refurbishing old tools, and making a few of my own.
      As far as sharpening, I’m pretty good, but just when I think I’m really good I have a set back. I’ve switched to sharpening almost completely without any honing guide, and that has helped. I’ve discovered that less is usually more, and I can get most of my tools ready to work in just a few minutes.
      This was my fifth LN hand tool show, so I already knew the drill, but it was the first where I really spent time with the other makers, and it made me realize that spending the money on a high quality tool is really not such a bad idea. I’ll be the last person to tell you that good woodworking tools “really aren’t that expensive”. I know they are, and it really all comes down to the cost vs. worth argument. I’m finally at the point in my life where I can afford to purchase a high level tool a few times a year. And despite what some say, better tools do make you a better woodworker. At least that is what I believe.

      • Which would have advanced the most…the boy who had made his own jackknife…or the boy…who received a Rodgers penknife from his father? Thoreau, Walden

        I respect your efforts and beliefs.
        I believe that there is something truly metaphysical embodied in every hand-made artifact, imparted by the maker and by every subsequent user. And that machine-made objects, no matter how precise, have no soul. Is that not at least part of the reason that you strive to make your own furniture, rather than buy it from IKEA?

      • billlattpa says:

        I agree, except that I also believe that the user gives the object “soul” as well. But you’re right, in my ideal world all of my furniture would have been made by me. I’m still shooting for that.

      • I lost a really good friend about a month ago, very sudden and no time to get affairs in order. He left me his collection of Japanese woodworking tools. Right now, I just wish he were here to answer a few questions.
        If buying a new tool helps you to achieve your goals, that’s good.

      • billlattpa says:

        Sorry to hear about your friend. Believe it or not my first decent woodworking tools were inherited from the husband of a friend of my wife. I barely knew him, but he had heard that I had began to attempt to make furniture, so he had asked his wife to give me a few of his tools to get started. He was a world class turner and carver, and naturally his sons followed in his footsteps, though not professionally like he did. Still, I was flattered that he had thought of me.

  3. Polly Becton says:

    Your link to RedRose Productions doesn’t work. Can you check on that?

  4. dzj9 says:

    I’d say you already have all the tools you need. Buy wood instead.

    • billlattpa says:

      That’s pretty much true. I can make most of the furniture that I like with the tools I have now. The tools that I would have purchased had money been no object: a panel raising plane and a few moulding planes, are specialty tools and not necessity tools.

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