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Keeping the elephants away

 

A man boards a train, and finds himself sitting in a compartment opposite another passenger who is reading The Times. Every time the other finishes a page, he tears it from the paper, rolls it into a ball and throws it from the train. Perplexed, the man asks what he is doing.

“Ah,” says the man with the newspaper. “A trick I learned in Africa. Keeps the elephants away, don’t you know.”

“But there aren’t any elephants around here!”

“Yes. Works well, doesn’t it!”

Nearly twenty years ago when I was an Artist Blacksmith I found myself in Paul Zimmerman’s forge in Germany, I was impressed as to how well seated his hammer heads were compared to mine, and was told that every Christmas they would soak all their hammers for three days in linseed oil, this would swell the wood and hold the heads on. This made a deep impression on me, not in the least that Christmas was the only time they took a break long enough to complete this process.

When I returned from this trip I set up shop more professionally, soaked all my hammers and have not suffered loose heads to the extent that I used to; forging hammers have a tough life, they often get hot from contact with hot steel, often enough to expel uncured linseed from the heads. But in my new shop the process seemed to work and I have used the same process on Axe and Adze heads with similar success. Or have I ? my new shop is much less damp than my old one, maybe the heads would not have come loose without a soak. In a similar vein I have heard and repeated the idea that soaking a handle in water is a bad idea as the fibres will try to expand greatly to the extent that they will become crushed and on drying the handle will be a worse fit than before.

Is this true though? can the fibres expand and become crushed at the same time? Yet another version I have heard is that in Japanese woodworking if an irregularity is found in the socket of an axe head the corresponding area in the handle is peened down and then carved to make as good a fit as possible, the handle is then fitted and water poured down the handle/socket junction. This soaks and expands the compressed wood which then pops back into place locking the handle on. Yet would soaking the handle not make it swell, compress the fibres and then contract on drying and come loose? It is said that if something is repeated eleven times on the internet it becomes irrefutable fact, but it is hard to know which facts to believe sometimes.

Heads coming loose on axes and adzes, especially where the contact area is relatively small because the eye socket is quite short- such as the Chineland pattern axes is something that comes up fairly frequently, even in my workshop I have had students bring along such axes for attention.

A slight window in my schedule gave me the few hours I needed to finally put in the time to continue a series of experiments to address some of these questions. I had made a tentative start over a year ago and then as ever work took over. But I am finally on track again. The full cycle of these including wetting and drying cycles will take around a month to complete and will be quite long winded. I will document results as they progress partly because I am uncharacteristically excited by this and want to share the results, also there is quite a lot to get across and it seems to make sense to break it down a bit.

To start off with though I  had, last year,  rough turned some ash blanks in the workshop, these were now skimmed in my metal lathe to be an accurate fit in some 25mm tube I have.

These  blanks were then cut into sections as were the tubes. They were then weighed and measured ( unfortunately my lathe was cutting a very slight taper) then driven into the tubes with a few very light taps of the hammer. This replicates an axe/adze/hammer handle as it would be fitted in my workshop. These tubes were then left over a radiator in my home and tested again. Unsurprisingly they had come loose to varying degrees, again replicating a common problem.

The next stage was to soak these test pieces in various solutions to try and fix them, I used the following:

Water- will it get even looser after drying?

PEG – polyethylene glycol- this was used quite commonly in the woodturning community a few years back but seems to have fallen out of favour somewhat now, it was quite hard to source. The idea is that the PEG will saturate the wood like water but will leave a waxy residue in the wood, reducing shrinkage, and in the case of woodturning it will lubricate the tool cutting it leaving a finer finish, check out Wiki for its other common uses.

Veritas Chair doctor glue- ‘ If a chair has a loose rung an injection of Chair Doctor Glue will first swell the rung and then bond it in position. The secret is the low viscosity. It soaks into the end grain, swells the wood then ‘freezes’ the wood in its swollen state as it cures. A film of dry glue is left on the walls of the wood cells preventing contraction. ‘ – sounded like it was worth a go, so a bottle was purchased.

Boiled linseed oil- My usual choice, rather than test different types of BLO I also tested a sample cut with 20% white spirit to thin it, hopefully allowing increased penetration. Accepted idea is that the oil penetrates and wets the fibres which then swell, and stay swollen as the oil will not evaporate out of the wood.

I used two samples in each solution- trying to match one loose and one tight fitting in each pair. They were left to soak for three days, replicating a German blacksmith’s Christmas break.

 

I didn’t soak the Chair doctor glue pair- just added some to the end grain at the end of the three days- these seemed to glue solid into the tubes.

After the soak weights and measurements were again taken, but the most obvious thing was that the water and PEG soaked pairs were now rock solid in the tubes and the protruding ends were noticeable oval. However all the BLO samples were as loose as when they had gone in, the oil actually made them slide in and out of the tubes easier. At this point I did wonder if all the time I had spent soaking tools in BLO had been a complete waste of time, maybe the only effect was to reduce the rate at which moisture could pass in and out of the wood as atmospheric conditions changed? Still I wanted to complete the experiment and see how the water and PEG samples dried so have been completing the weights and measurements on all the samples over the last couple of weeks as they dry or cure,  I should have final results completed by next weekend, so far they have surprised me.

 

 

Axes, finally

For years now I have been telling customers that I would be adding axes to my site in the near future, well finally that day has arrived! When the next round of orders come up there will be a carving axe head available to buy.

I have finally refined the design to a point that I am confident that I will not suddenly feel the need to change it, I do love to tweak designs like this, but after at least a couple of years of trialling the many prototypes I am happy with where I have got to. Less visibly I have trialled different steels and heat treatments and am pleased with what I have come up with. Importantly I have refined the production process so that I can consistently make the heads the same, I don’t want to be listing individual heads,  I expect to be within 25g of the target weight and 1/4″ in measurements. Apologies for the mash-up of metric and imperial- I always think of edge lengths in inches, but final weights in grams. Still I have customers in Europe and the States so it seems appropriate.

A  satisfying by product of forging accurately to size is that the initial  blank of round bar I start from looks improbably small.

These heads will have an edge length of 6″ ( measured along the cutting edge – is about 5 3/4″ as the crow flies) They will be symmetrically flat ground, the steel and heat treat I am using will hold an edge at 29deg which is much finer than standard  axe grinds, they tend to be a fair bit over 30deg. The tips at heel and toe are fine, they will stand up to sensible use but are not designed to be used to pry with, these are carving axes and these tips are for getting into and out of concave cuts. I prefer to think of these heads as a ‘knife on a stick’,  albeit much prettier hopefully, rather than a jack of all trades tool. I have made the throat quite narrow as I like the dramatic ‘Viking’ look this gives, I have however left it a bit thicker than normal to be sure that strength is maintained, you can see this in the profile picture at the bottom of the page.

The toe is quite pronounced but due to the long cutting edge this is balanced out by the large beard, it makes for an agile head that will shape well but still have enough edge length for planing cuts, the edge is pretty straight which aids both the planing cuts and the more extreme tips.  The weight at 650 is fairly heavy for a carving axe- not far off a GB carver but, but it is certainly not excessive. I may well introduce a scaled down version around 500g

I have put some subtle decoration on the heads, as I mentioned at least a year ago part of the rationale behind this was to reinforce the point that these are not heads bashed out at speed but works I have poured a lot of effort and care into, I enjoy making them and don’t want them to become a huge part of my production schedule. If they do the frisson of excitement I get from an axe making week coming up will be lost. And it was such fun that I went ahead on the dates that I had marked on my calender despite them coinciding with the hottest days of the year- the workshop has never been so hot, which was challenging. I also spent some of this week making the fourth prototype for a larger head that I hope to put into production next, but currently I am struggling to make them using the techniques that I want to at a speed that will make them commercially viable.

I should also say that whilst the carving head may seem expensive at £210  it is from my point of view under priced, I still take too long over them. I could make them quicker but there are so many tweaks and refinements that I feel are necessary to make these the best Axes I have ever made. My hope is that with practice I will speed up to a point that they do become worth making financially, they are fantastic heads and I enjoy forging them, but if I only made these heads I would struggle to stay afloat.  So I will put these up in the next round of back orders, will be really informative seeing how many are ordered.  When they have been made and posted out I will then take stock and see if it will be possible to repeat next month. I certainly hope so.

Axe Forging- Demo and Workshop

This weekend I will be at the Bodgers Ball, its only a bit over an hour down the road, I am pleased not to be spending too long in the van. will set up the forge and make an axe and an Adze, Harry who used to strike for me at the Greenwood Guild will be wielding the sledge again.

May is looking to be my busiest month ever so I will not be setting up a stand at the show, and am really looking forward to a relaxing weekend catching up with friends and family.

The weekend after I will be in London teaching knife making on the Sat and Sun, and on the Mon/ Tues will be doing Axes- and there are still a couple of places left. These usually sell out very quickly so this is rare chance to grab a place while you can. Tom made a great video of the last course we ran.

These courses are really special and being over two days the atmosphere is great, the sense of achievement people get from forming and marrying raw blanks of steel and wood into their own special axe is infectious.

You can book your place Here.

Froes

When I made my hazel gate a few weeks back I was reminded that I didn’t have a small froe anymore. As often happens I must have sold it when running low on stock. I find it quite amusing that when  I offer to sell a customer one of my personal tools their eyes light up thinking that these are in some way special.

In a way they are. If I forge a tool and some fault become apparent  that means it won’t be fit for purpose then it will be scrapped, I won’t spend time finishing such a tool. However sometimes when I make a batch of tools something may come to light that means it won’t be sold on this site, sometimes it is just a matter of sizing. I make a bath of 80mm blades and one measures up at 75. These will be sold at shows, that way a customer can be sure of what they are buying.

Other times though an issue will come to light that makes me question a tools strength. It may be forged too thin, I do like my tools to not carry excess bulk but there are limits. I often handle these tools myself and try them out, to see if I can find these limits. I actually have yet to break one, which is pleasing. Other issues include de-laminations in a forge welded tool. I prefer not to sell these, if I do it will only be face to face so I can point out any issues. Regardless everything is guaranteed.

So, back to the Froes. For me there is no doubt that the most efficient way to make a froe is to weld a laser cut blank to a piece of tapered tube. But, this is not a way I prefer to work and wanted to forge myself one in a traditional style, mainly to see if I could. One issue that can effect all froes is the eye join. In machine welded ones they can break, in forge welded ones they can split where the eye is wrapped and the two sides meet, wrought iron resists this splitting a lot better but not completely  and is not a material I work in so the weld was potentially more vulnerable.

I have wanted to forge a blade with a socketed eye for quite some time, but I wanted to avoid the likelihood of the eye opening so tried a new (to me anyway) weld, it was tricky partly due to the shape, but also because when I did decorative work I used to forge weld everyday, now it is very uncommon for me. But I did fairly well I think. Made a pair, then had another go and did another couple.

I will as ever keep the one with the dodgiest weld and sell the others. They won’t be on the site as it is not worth listing something I am unlikely to make again- I can’t see me being able to forge these at a rate that would make them viable. I could arc weld and grind some up that would look very similar and function the same much quicker. Still it was fun to try something new.

 

First two forged in the end they went a lot easier than I expected.

 

 

Final forms for them; I was talking to Alex Yerks about these and sagely proclaimed that a froe should be sharp enough to bite into a log but not cut you.

 

I decided to put handles on, and in the process cut myself deeper than I have in a long time!  I used  hazel in the round and stained it; this is a favourite for me, lots of variables but if you get it right the results are really good. They ended up looking very much like the tool I envisaged, rough forged and handled but with a bit of delicacy.

 

Years back I used to help out at a forest school, children learning cleaving used to work in pairs, one holding the froe the other the maul, even with gloves it was dicey at times.  I tend now to either forge the eye slightly offset, or if I am still not happy fit a curved handle to give a little bit more clearance on very short froes.

Sharpening Video

After many abortive attempts I have finally got a video together explaining the geometry on my curved blades, the thinking behind it and how best to sharpen them. I would like to say a big thanks to Alex for filming and then editing this, if you watch to the very end you will see the blooper reel that chronicles the mountain he had to climb.

I realise that it is a long film, but there was actually a lot to say; Alex did cut it down to make a shorter version that captures all the essential sharpening information but the longer one is much better in my opinion. I have also put together a sharpening kit that includes everything that is used in the video.

 

 

 

 

 

Ordering Information- Update

The first trial of the back or pre-order system is underway- I have taken what I estimate to be a month worth of orders and will be starting on them first thing tomorrow.  If you had notification but got on to the site and found no stock then don’t worry- we will be using your place on the wait list to build a new linear one. Sign up to my blog to be kept informed of updates as we have them.

 

Ordering Information

As I have intimated for some time the wait list system on the site has not worked very well. As has been pointed out, it didn’t actually function a waiting list, but the plug-in in question labelled itself as such and it was not possible to change it to ’email notification system’ which might have helped matters.

As an experiment I am going to allow customers to pre ( back) -order blades, it will be possible to order blades that are not actually in stock. This should stop the phenomenon of customers making multiple purchases to get all the blades they want, which benefits nobody but the postal service. I will take what I perceive to be a months worth of orders then remove the back-order option. If this first trial runs successfully then the plan is to use the wait lists that people are on as a way to allow further limited series of pre orders to be taken. Please be aware that if you do order by this system there may be a significant wait before your receive your items.

Easy for me to type this, but from an IT point of view I am told it is not straight forward at all. Hence I want to run a test to see if it is worth ploughing resources into this. It is not clear what will happen when the out of stock purchase option is activated. Maybe everyone on the wait list will get an email saying that their tool is back in stock ( which isn’t really true) and the site will again be overloaded. Hopefully not, but if this is the case the wait lists are already archived and there is no need to rejoin.

I plan to have this up and running in the next couple of days but am not going to put a time up as most of the current frustrations seem to have been caused by too many customers after too few blades, all at the same time.

Kuksas and Sharpening.

Forging tools as fast and hopefully as well as I can, but still not managing to keep up does get rather wearing, and I have been getting increasingly jaded with the situation. Despite the fact that I am producing tools in larger numbers than ever before they are still hard for people to come by due to the spiralling demand. We are still trying to work on a way to queue orders on the website in a fair manner, it is not as simple as it seemed. If I have to do this manually it will take valuable time that could be spent addressing the real issue in hand which is making tools. I actually did a small run of axes a couple of months ago, I sold these individually rather than through the site.  It took an average of eight emails to complete each sale. If you look at the last batch of hooks I have forged you can see why I need to be able to sell them via the site in an automated manner.

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Last week though Alex and Nicky came over to run two days of his hugely popular Kuksa carving course. It was wonderful to see the workshop transformed into a classroom and have it filled with people, it is rare for me to have visitors to the forge, and it really lifted my spirits.

Tools laid out

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Calm before the storm

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A very different atmosphere in the forge over the weekend

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Some great nests made by a first time swan neck user

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Alex at work

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Two highly successful courses, I managed to squeeze in making a  hazel gate over the weekend, again a pleasant change for me, all my carving in the workshop is in  bone dry ash. It is a joy to carve something green.

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We spent an evening winding down after the courses gilding treen- I had been searching for some batteries in the workshop and unearthed a book and a half of 23.75 carat gold leaf. A week ago- I used to gild some of my decorative forged work but had never tried it on wood before, as you can see the results were stunning. We also had some time testing a pair of prototype axes I made over Christmas, more on those another time as it got rather involved but it is invaluable for me to spend time bouncing ideas of someone as experienced as Alex.

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It was intriguing to watch how different students got on with my tools. Some amazing shavings were made by students that had never used one before. I learnt a long time ago to take note of the shavings that a carver makes. In the end anyone can finish a piece by taking tiny little shavings. What impresses me ( as a toolmaker )  is the bigger chips from the roughing out process. Most informative was how the less experienced students were more likely to struggle with tools that had lost a degree of sharpness. This subtle degradation of the edge wasn’t always that obvious and Alex could carve a lot longer than anyone else with a tool that needed touching up. There were also a few students that brought ‘foreign’ tools in for me to sharpen. It really brought it home to me how important it is for my customers to be able to keep their blades as sharp as when they left my workshop.

I have been unsure about explaining my sharpening  processes to a wider audience for quite some time now. For one there is the horror of having to face the camera. The other issue though has been how much I want to say about my tools. When I started forging blades 6 years ago there was never any need to have a makers mark, my blades were instantly recognisable and virtually nobody was selling forged woodcarving blades. They have of course been refined over the years and certain aspects of my designs became signature features, such as the tramlines on my spoon blades. There have been a few attempts at replicating them over the years but some recent copies are pretty close. I can see the differences, some aesthetic some not, but felt I could say nothing. If I pointed out the differences then the next versions would be closer.

However putting this rather frustrating aspect of business aside it seems like it is time to explain how to sharpen my blades, and to do that it is necessary to explain the edge geometry that I use. So Alex, being a highly accomplished film-maker shot a video- This was his second attempt and actually in total my fourth go at being filmed. We just about got there in the end but I really don’t envy his job in editing it to come out with something coherent, It looks like there will be a full version with edge theory and a shorter one just focussed on the sharpening.

In the meantime Alex made this teaser video, he actually put it all together on the spot picking up my daughter’s much abused guitar – it had got rather damp as it had spent the ‘summer’ outside under our shelter. We felt bad about this so had left it dry by the wood stove.

 

Perfection

“Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence.”

Vince Lombardi Jr.

I heard this quote from a very talented local carver. This crystallized my ponderings on perfection and why I had disliked it so viscerally when applied to craft. If you believe the last thing you made is perfect, then that’s it. Your work is done and there is nowhere further to go. The flip side though is that it can be hard not to see fault in everything you do and get overwhelmed by it; often in the past I have driven home thoroughly disheartened by a tiny aspect of a tool that to my eye ruined it completely. And the next morning struggled to find this terrible flaw.

I like this quote, find it reassuring, thank you Grant.

Last post showed the axe I forged on a course, I was really pleased with it; however when I came to try it out I felt that the handle was too long, using it at full length made it feel a bit floaty and imprecise, as I suggested at the time it is a bit light for its size and a longer handle didn’t really cure this. So I used it to  carve another, by the time I had finished the new handle I largely come to grips with the old one, but this one feels right immediately, not after 10 minutes use so it is a step forward.

I have also included a picture of my hammer handle one week in; I took it to Barns where I was running an axe making course, really impressive set of axes came out this time, hopefully I will get some images of them to share soon. I had a fair go with it then and then and did a short run of  axes back at my workshop; managed to drop a red-hot head on the handle and burn a notch in right at the weakest point, the handle isn’t really right on this either; it feels great when I hold it at full length and I get the impression that vibrations are not transmitted up a thinner handle. However at times I really like to choke up on a hammer and when I do this I am gripping the a section that is too narrow for my hand and this can cause real problems. I’ll probably keep the handle for another hammer and make a new one. You can see why I love ash though, it starts off looking very bland but very quickly the porus grain fills and it takes on a whole new character, there is a difficult teenage period when the ash grain is neither clean or fully filled and just looks dirty but with hands like mine it doesn’t take that long.

 

Axe and hammer a week later

 

And the new heads, a few subtle tweaks and variations in the designs, a more boldly incised pattern and new, hopefully superior steel, it forges nicely and as far all the readings tell  me the heat treat has worked well, but I won’t know for certain until I put a handle on one and see how the edge holds up in use. But which one? always in the past when I make a batch there is one that to my eye stands above the others, this batch I am still undecided, really I want to try them all.

 

First three

Axes and Adzes, Again.

I had a great day last week with Richard and Jules Heath, they came to forge axes. It has been a while since I have taught axe making in my workshop, concentrating on larger groups at the Green wood guild in London, and a new adze course at Westonbirt, see my courses page for details. This time they were aiming to make a head each in a day, this seemed easy enough so I decided to forge an axe alongside them. On a course I will typically start off a head to give everyone an idea of what we are doing but rarely finish them off; and if I do try they often end up going wrong as I am actually concentrating on my students 6 axes rather than my own.

This time though I decided to make a much more extreme version of my carving axes. The blank was around 2 oz heavier but the techniques for forming the eye, lug and throat of the axe were identical. My blank was on the right.

blanks

Next we marked out where the eye will be slit; this is done cold. I have been in two minds about this for a long time, it is much more accurate to mark out cold but I do think that it is shame that the first forceful blows on the steel of the day are not done under heat. However accuracy is so important at this stage that it overides my aesthetic concerns.

marking out

Finally into the forge.

first heat

And slitting the eye, Jules was concerned that his tennis elbow would preclude his ability to make an axe, but as you can see from the picture both of his hands are taken up, I am striking with the sledge but Jules is definately in control of the preceedings.

eye slitting

When it came to forging out the my axe I tended to use the powerhammer to speed things along. I am drawing out the lugs on the eye.

cheating on the powerhammer

Back to the sledge and drawing out the blade on Richard’s axe.

flareing the blade

At this stage we run out of pictures and jump to their finished axes, I carried on completed forging on mine whilst they were doing the heat treat and some of the grinding.

Here we have Richards head.

Richards axe

And Jules’.

jules aze

I great day that I throughly enjoyed, Jules and Richard are well known green wood workers and I always find that these skills transfer well to forge work. It was really liberating making an axe alongside them, I decided to have a play and see how far I could draw out the edge. The past year has been focused soley on production and I enjoyed making this so much that the next day I went on to make a couple of rounding hammers, I had used tools like this to finely control the flow of the steel to get the maximum edge length from a relatively small piece of steel; it ended up a fraction over 7.5″ and  1 1/2 lb ( 675g)

When I came to make the handle I fitted one of my temporay handles using a long wedge and carved the handle for the axe head with the axe head, wordplays like that in action please me immensely. On a more practical level whilst it would have been quicker roughing out with a drawknife (or bandsaw and linisher if I was really willing to sell my soul.)  it was really useful to try out the axe and see what I liked about it and what needed changing, the handle I had put on turned out to be too curved so I altered my design to account for this, also the head felt a bit light considering how much potential edge could be used to hew with so I put a longer handle to allow it to feel more powerful if need be. I only made the head as an exercise to see how much edge I could tease out of the blank but ended up really liking it however I still feel that anything over 5 1/2″ inches on a carving axe is overkill.

handle underway

 

However there are certain features that I like about this axe that will subtley show themselves in future, less extreme runs that I produce. The handles on the hammers I made very thin, I wanted to see if this would help reduce the shock back up my arm when working harder grades of steel, will be interesting to see how they hold up; they certainly won’t look this white for long. I doubt I will ever put them into the mix of my teaching hammers as they would easly break with a misshit. Also I tend to purposely make teaching tooling with a bit less care than this; it is not that I want my students to use inferior tools (and most of the differences I am talking about are asethetic not functional) , just that I know that the tools are going to get a fair beating and I find it very hard to let go of a tool that I have lavished alot of attention over. It would not be fair for me to be wincing every time a student slightly mishits a tool and marks it so I make sets up that are a bit more robust and rustic than these.

axe finished

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