The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Old and busted vs new hotness

One of the more hotly debated topics among woodworkers is the choice between purchasing a tool new or vintage. To me the debate is mainly pointless because in the end most woodworkers end up with a mix of the two. The real question is which tools should be purchased new, and which should be purchased pre-owned, and that is where I come in.

For the sake of brevity, I’m going to leave off items such as screw drivers and hammers, and stick with only the big guns: Hand planes, table saw, hand saws, chisels, and a handful of others. I understand that this topic has been covered ad hominem and in depth, and I likely have touched on it myself. This list, however, will be my definitive entry based on all of the experience I have acquired. What makes my list different? I have absolutely nothing to gain; I am not trying to make a sale or push a specific tool. I am only trying to help.

I’ll start off with the big three bench planes: smoother, jack, jointer. I own all three, with the smoother and jack being purchased new and the jointer being vintage. All three are excellent tools and I have no complaints with any of them. But if I could start over, I would do the exact opposite and purchase vintage jack and smoother planes, and a new jointer. Why? The jack and smoother planes are by far the most common hand planes on the vintage market. Often, high quality versions of each tool can be found easily for less than a hundred dollars. In fact, I’ve seen many nice examples in the $65 dollar range, which is less than a quarter of the cost of a new tool. Of course you will likely need to do some restoration on these tools, but these tools are the easiest of the bench planes to restore. A vintage jointer, on the other hand, can cost close to $200 for a decent tool, and that tool will likely still need some work. Good jointers are not as easy to find on the vintage market. And if one has twist in it’s sole it is near impossible to fix by hand. A high quality new jointer can be purchased for around $100 more than the cost of a vintage model, and it will come with a guarantee.

As far as panel saws, a rip filed panel saw is probably the best tool to purchase the vintage route. Rip saws are the easiest to re-sharpen for beginners (in fact, I would recommend practicing saw sharpening on a rip filed saw). And there are still a decent number of rip saws on the vintage market. As far as a cross-cut saw is concerned, I would purchase a good quality new saw before going the vintage route. Cross-cut saws are not nearly as easy to restore as a rip saw. It’s best to have a new saw that was professionally filed and set.

When it comes to back saws, I would stick with all new saws. There are still good back saws on the vintage market, but the problem is that they are often the same cost as a new model. In my experience, most decent backsaws on the vintage market are more “collector” tools than “user” tools. There are many high quality new back saw makers, and the price for them is generally reasonable enough to not even consider a vintage tool.

Purchasing a table saw either used or new is a tough call. You can get a good quality, woodworking table saw for between $600 and $1000. You can also go much higher, in particular if you go the Sawstop route (which I would never discourage). I’ve seen used, good quality cabinet saws cost between $300 and $500. The problem here is two-fold. Firstly, it is not easy to just eye up a table saw and know if it was abused. Electric motor problems are not simple to diagnose, and could crop up at anytime. Secondly, for the most part if you are purchasing a pre-owned table saw you will likely have to find one in your region, because the chances of finding a seller who is willing to take the saw apart and crate it up for shipping are slim to none.

Chisels I can go either route. I’ve seen some good quality vintage tools for a decent price, and I’ve seen some real junk. Luckily, it is not difficult to find good chisels both new and used, and it is easy to put together a mixed set.

Block planes are another example of newer is better. Almost every vintage block plane I’ve come across looks like it was used as a framing hammer. The good quality vintage tools are disproportionately expensive for what they are. I’ve heard some say that the vintage blocks are better, but I can’t imagine any being as good as my LN, and that tool was no more than many high quality vintage tools I’ve seen.

If you use a brace and bits, you want to go vintage. Vintage braces are a dime a dozen, inexpensive, and easy to restore. The same goes for vintage bits. Good quality new bits are expensive, and I’ve never come across a new brace that is as good as a vintage one.

Spoke shaves, on the other hand, I would only purchase new (or if you’re as stupid as me you can try to make a few). Every vintage spoke shave I’ve ever seen has been beat to hell. A new, high quality spoke shave is not overly expensive, and it comes with no worries. Are there good, vintage versions out there? Probably, but I’ve never seen one.

Joinery planes such as a router plane and a plow plane I would only purchase new. Here, I will name a specific brand and say that Veritas offers great tools, fully guaranteed, and very high quality. Vintage joinery planes that are in decent shape usually are the same price as a new tool. And trust me, when it comes to these tools, the newer versions are better than the vintage versions in every way.

The last tool I’ll mention is a high quality square. Once again, there are some good quality versions on the vintage market, and once again they are pricey. Good quality new squares aren’t cheap either. In this case I am on the fence, but if I had to choose one over the other I would probably stick to the new tool route. To name another brand, Starrett still makes great squares, and they are not much more in cost than their vintage cousins. As I’ve said with other tools, in this case you are getting a new tool that comes with a guarantee from the maker. You’re not getting that with a vintage tool.

I could mention tools such as a coping saw, marking gauges/knives, and so on, but I’ll stop here. My list covers most of the major woodworking tools, so I’ll leave it at that. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m not an expert. But you can trust me that this list and the logic behind it is sound. Whether or not you choose to heed this advice is completely up to you.

 

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Secret Santa

I had a bit of free time yesterday afternoon, so I took the opportunity to rough cut some of my walnut stock for a “secret” project I will hopefully begin, and end,  some time next weekend. Why is this project such a  secret? I’ll try to explain.

I’ve always tried to be honest and forthright on this blog concerning not only my so-called philosophy, but also my woodworking projects. I’ve done my best to detail everything I’ve made during that time, showcasing both the highlights and the mistakes. Mistakes generally don’t bother me, because the old cliché: ‘You learn from your mistakes’ is as true as the day is long as far as woodworking is concerned. But this new project is something I’ve never attempted before, so I have no frame of reference or experience to fall back on (though I have been doing research). I may as well be attempting an emergency appendectomy and trying to explain it to you all as I’m doing it.

To be even more annoyingly vague, this is not truly a woodworking project, it just happens to be partly made of wood.

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For the inquisitive among you, there is a subtle hint in the photo.

In any event, I will do my best to document this little (hopefully not ill-fated) attempt. If it goes well, or even just okay, I will write a post about it. If not, forget what you see here.

The Expert

I have a little something to get off my chest, and what better place to do that than my very own blog.

On occasion I’ve written about the sale of woodworking tools and what I perceive as a failure of the manufacturers to market and sell those tools on a greater scale. For the most part if you don’t have a dedicated woodworking store in your region you will more than likely have to order the majority of your woodworking tools from the internet, sight unseen in a sense. I firmly believe that if woodworking tools were more readily available in a retail, in stock, off the shelf setting there would be more sales and quite possibly a greater interest in the hobby of woodworking. Now, maybe I’m wrong, and maybe the people who manufacture and distribute woodworking tools have already done the prerequisite marketing studies and have determined that it’s not a feasible scenario. Maybe. I don’t know; I don’t have that inside information. But that’s not really what I want to talk about.

When I wrote those posts there were people who disagreed with what I had to say. I have no issue with that. My opinion is not infallible. But some, in subtle and not so subtle ways, basically implied that I know absolutely nothing about it, and therefore I should keep my mouth shut on the subject.

I don’t often speak about my job on this blog. Most of you think I am an electrician. That is true, in a sense, but I haven’t been a field electrician in some time. I work mainly in the supply side of the industry. Part of that job is the purchasing and sale of tools.

For a time, I ordered the entire line of tools for my company. I ordered from every major manufacturer at least once a week. I’ve sold tools to everybody from electrical contractors, to manufacturing facilities, to tool rental companies, to townships, to ski resorts, to nuclear power plants. I’ve been involved with the marketing of those tools. I’ve helped professionals chose the correct tool for the job. I’ve said before that I hate to call myself an “expert”, but in this case, yeah, I’m an expert.

In ten years of dealing with tools as a professional I’ve learned one, unequivocal fact: an in-stock tool sells far, far better than a tool that needs to be ordered. No, I’ve learned two unequivocal facts: a tool that is on display sells far, far better than a tool that is not. Wait, here is another unequivocal fact: a tool that can be handled by the customer sells far, far better than a tool that cannot be touched.

I’m not going to get into the theories concerning the decline of the hand tool, or the decline of the local hardware store etc. I’ve covered that before. That being said, here is another fact I know: If woodworking hand tool and power tools actually had the small market share that most woodworkers seem to think it commands, most of the three dozen or so dedicated woodworking tool manufacturers would already have gone out of business years ago. On the contrary, it seems that more and more makers are springing up every month.

So in my expert opinion, woodworking tools would sell better, and woodworking as a hobby would benefit greatly, if quality woodworking tools were sold at the retail level. You may wonder if I’m such an expert, why do I not know the reasons behind this seeming lack of retail availability. Maybe I do, or at the least I have a very strong opinion on the how and why, but since it is not my place to question the motives of tool makers, I will keep it to myself. Nevertheless, you can question my opinions all you like, I don’t mind in the least. But in this case, I am an expert on the subject.

Do clothes make the man?

If you’ve ever played team sports, or have been in the armed forces, you may remember the brief but strange period when you first begin when nobody has gotten a uniform yet. For those first few days, especially in the military, you don’t really feel like a soldier, but a group of guys in sweat pants, sort of pretending… Then comes that magical day when you get issued your uniforms and suddenly it’s no longer a mob, but an army working in unison, or at least that’s the theory.

When it comes to woodworking, there is no official uniform, but there does seem to be a transition from “pretend to serious” and for me that transition started when I obtained my first high-quality woodworking tools. For whatever reason, when I got my first good table saw, my first hand plane, and my first set of woodworking chisels, and I began to use them, there was a shift in the way I approached the hobby of woodworking. I’m not saying that you cannot woodwork without “real tools”, my first few projects were done at first without a table saw, and then with a portable tabletop version, and a set of three Craftsman butt chisels. As my desire to woodwork grew, so too did my desire to work with higher quality tools. And when I got those tools and began to use them they made me want to improve. In short, they inspired me.

In a (very friendly) exchange I had with a commenter, I made the assertion that high quality tools make me a better woodworker. As I said in other posts, there may be many woodworkers who can go to your typical home center (of course there is a group of woodworkers out there that advocate only high end tools, and I’ve had my run-ins with them several times) and purchase a set of jobsite butt chisels, a basic handsaw, and a circular saw and make some very nice furniture, but I’m not one of those guys. How do I know? Because when I walk into a Lowes, I don’t get inspired to create, but when I attend a tool show like I did last weekend, seeing all of those world class tools made me want to make world class furniture. And that desire didn’t stem from wanting to own all of those tools, not in the least. It came from seeing high level craftsmanship.

As a former musician, I can remember like it was yesterday purchasing my first good quality guitar. Anybody who has ever played music whether as a hobby or a profession will tell you that there is a world of difference between playing a good instrument and a cheap instrument. A cheap instrument can easily hold you back, when a good instrument can easily propel you forward and make your playing improve dramatically. Why then should it be any different with woodworking tools? As I’ve mentioned many times before, when it comes to woodworking tools, there is a group of woodworkers (growing larger every day it seems) which feels that buying a high quality plane, or chisel, or what have you, is somehow cheating, or doing some sort of disservice to woodworking as an entity. Why? If making furniture with the most inexpensive tools you can find is your thing then so be it. There’s nothing wrong with that in the least. But if you are like me, and when you see a well-crafted, well-tuned, and beautifully designed tool, and that tool inspires you to improve, and create, and enjoy the hobby, what in the world can be wrong with that scenario?

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.

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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.

Sharpening a moulding plane iron.

I have a handful of moulding planes:  a pair of hollow/round, a few beading planes, as well as a few joinery planes such as a dado, rabbet, and shoulder plane. The joinery planes are no problem to sharpen, and the beading planes and hollow plane gave me little problems, but the round plane was more difficult than I thought it would or should be. I was able to flatten the back easily enough (which any woodworker on Earth should be able to do), but I could not get a consistent edge on the bevel.

Just the other day I watched a video posted by Paul Sellers on sharpening moulding plane irons that opened my eyes and shed a lot more light on working with these sometimes tricky planes. I’ll post a link to the video, as watching the video is far more clear and concise than my explanation would be. But I do want to add that during the course of the video Sellers mentions that moulding plane irons were far less polished and refined than a bench plane or chisel  would have been. Sellers states that the higher angle of the plane coupled with the profiled nature allowed the irons to have less than perfectly flattened backs and relatively unpolished bevels. My previous conclusion was less scientific, because I always felt that moulding plane irons weren’t as highly sharpened and polished because they are more difficult maintain, and the woodworkers who used them just didn’t have enough time to spend on sharpening to such a high level. A chisel or bench plane iron can be maintained and honed in a matter of just 30 seconds, a mouldiing plane iron takes longer no matter what anybody says.

I’ve only personally worked with/handled a few dozen or so traditional moulding planes, and I can say that every one of them had an iron that at best needed a good deal of work, at worst needed a medic. I can also say that at the very least a few of those planes were only owned by one person, so it’s not as if they were all just passed down to half a dozen people who were progressively worse at sharpening. So while my conclusion may be off base, the proof is in the iron, and some of these irons were not well-sharpened. If you don’t believe me, believe Paul Sellers, who probably handles more vintage moulding planes in a week than I will in my lifetime.

Nonetheless, I tried Sellers suggestions, and I did get the round plane to work. I did not sharpen past 600 grit sandpaper or 1000 grit water stone, so I don’t have a truly refined edge yet. I will go to 8000 grit and then the leather strop, but I am going to do that when I sharpen my carving chisels so I can sharpen/hone everything all at once. So if you are having issues with sharpening moulding plane irons, I highly recommend watching this video.

Flattened back

Flattened back

Bevel is sharper and far more polished (trust me)

Bevel is sharper and far more polished (trust me)

Coney Plane

For the past few months I’ve been in the market for a rabbet plane, partially because I had a gift card burning a hole in my pocket, but mostly because I need one to do some of the things I am planning for the future. The problem was I couldn’t seem to find a decent one on the used market, and when I did somebody always beat me to the punch. While I’ve always wanted to purchase the Veritas Skew Rabbet Plane (essentially a metal moving fillister), I also wanted a “traditional” wood version just because I like how they look and feel. There still are some makers of these planes: TIme Warp Tool Works, Matt Bickford, and Philly Planes to name a few, but my funds were limited to around $100, and this led me to the E.C. Emmerich web page.

E.C. Emmerich Rabbet plane

E.C. Emmerich Rabbet plane

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View of the sole

View of the sole

I’ve known about E.C. Emmerich for some time. For those of you who do not, they are a German company that still makes many traditional woodworking tools. They have a good reputation, but the problem was I couldn’t find a distributor here in America that carried their full line; most seemed to carry their Primus Planes, but I was look for something more traditional. Eventually, I found that Highland Woodworking offered the Rabbet Plane I was looking for, so I used up the last of my gift card and purchased it this week. The plane arrived in just two days (way to go USPS!) And though I haven’t used it as of yet, I can say that it is a beautifully made plane. The sole is Lignum Vitae and the body hornbeam. The iron is flat and razor sharp, and appears to be ready to use out of the box though I will hone it. The plane has a solid feel to it that I like. The only thing that has bothered me thus far is the lack of instructions for the care of the plane. Their is an oil finish on the body, but I have no idea what that finish is. Generally, I would use linseed oil to clean and maintain a wood plane, and I’m under the assumption that this plane would be no different, but I would like to be sure. I will check out the ECE web page later to see what they recommend.

This past Winter, which finally ended on Friday (with 6 inches of snow falling for one last sucker-punch) has been a strange one for me in the woodworking sense. I didn’t build much furniture, but I managed to pick up some new tools, which I hadn’t planned on doing, as well as breathe some new life into tools I already had. I can say in all honesty that my plane collection is nearing completion. I would say that a plough plane and a set of #6 hollow/rounds will finish it off and leave me with every tool I need to do anything I need. Now, I just need a little bit of nice weather so I can get those tools working.

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