Archive | August, 2015

Aspiration vs Perspiration

This post is about the motivation behind my toolmaking. First and foremost there is the need to provide a living for my family and however idealistic I may sound later on there are economic realities that can’t be provided for by the feelgood factor of working with your hands. However, if money was my sole concern then I probably would be an accountant not a craftsman.

When making a tool the aim is to make the best that I can, no concern about time taken or price, it can take years to get a tool to a point that I am really happy with it yet still some tools stall at this point as it becomes obvious that they are going to be too expensive regardless of how good they are; I won’t reduce quality to come in at a certain price point.

In Maine this year I used a wonderful shave horse that Lie Nielsen had made, asking when these would be in production I was told a familiar story, they were too expensive to make, still with the way Green woodworking is taking off in the States it wouldn’t be a great to surprise to see it back in production in the future.

As to processes, my first love is to forge steel. It is important for me to do this rather than grind it or have it lazer cut. In the past I have been selling blades only and will continue to offer these but recently have been completely finishing more of my tools. My preferred method with handles is to cut them green, although some finishing needs to be done when the wood is dry.  As an example I will take you through a knife I took on as a commission a few months back, contrasting it with my preferred methods of making carving knives

This knife was full tang and not really suited to forging so I drew out the outline on a piece of steel and cut out the shape.



I drilled some holes to take to balance the knife a bit better, as this is not something I do very often I ended up not being very happy with the hole placement near the front of the handle, so filled them with weld, unhappy with the welds another bar was marked out and cut, the blade pictured will probably end up as scrap.


The scales ( wood either side of the full tang ) needed to be bone dry, a pair were cut from Yew and a pair from Spalted box.  I was unsure if the box would work but it was my preferred option, they were cut oversize, then dried, finally they were flattened on a sander to make a good fit on the tang.


The blade was heat treaded and ground, the box scales survived drying with only minor warping and cracking the latter fixed with super glue.  Everything glued up using some cool mosaic pins that I dug up.


Finally it was sanded and oiled, it came out well I think, but there are lots of makers that can do this sort of work and for me was very time consuming, largely due to my inexperience in using these methods of construction. The price I charged for it compared to the lost production time meant that this knife actually cost me £1200- which made it abundantly clear that I can no longer take on one off commissions!


This is the way I prefer to work- steel is cut roughly to shape


It is then forged to size, in batches- this I find tricky to get right, if the batch is too large I will damage my elbow as I like to forge hard and fast and the steel I use is very tough, too small a batch is not efficient 20 in this size is about right I feel. You can see how effective forging is: the blades are bigger than the blank ( well obviously they can’t be but you get the idea) compare this to all the wasted steel on the stock removal knife.


Then handles, green ash, cut to length, split with a froe and in this case roughed with an axe. IMG_7900

Final shaping is done on a shave horse although some cleaning up was done with a knife.



I like 12 sided handles as octagonal tends to feel too sharp to most people meaning that the corners need to be sanded down. The contrast between forged steel and crisp shiny bevels play well against carved handles, I have also been experimenting with different woods and staining as the aesthetic is important to me; a tool that lifts the spirits inspires you to do better work.


It is also deeply satisfying to use and develop my own tools to do the woodwork with. I could use my powerful linisher to rough out and finish handles at a good speed, but it would be noisy, unpleasant work requiring ear, eye and lung protection. The way orders are stacking up it seems likely that I will be either outsourcing my handles or directly employing someone to make them. I want them to be made this way, if a job is being created it should be one I would want to do myself. It would be disingenuous of me to embrace and promote the dust free ideals of unplugged Green Woodworking and then employ someone to rip out all my handles on a linisher.

A few provisos about the video-  The quality is poor as our camera is ancient. No power was needed so I set up at home, which made a pleasant change. My starting point was split wedges of ash. In this instance all shaping was done on the shave horse, as the ash was  pretty dry I could crack off large sections early on when shaping with the drawknife, it is pleasing working this way as it tells me exactly which way the grain is running. In the second sequence my new drawknife, code named PMPY,  allows me to cut the facets and deal with any unruly grain without having to flip the blank continually. It actually works slightly better with slower deliberate strokes,  but being videoed made me nervous and I worked it backwards and forwards a lot quicker than normally. You can hear how tough trimming the end grain was with a knife, if it is green it is quicker to do it like this, but when it is this dry it would have been better to clamp it vertically in the shave horse and use a drawknife. My much admired shavehorse was made for me by Lee Stoffer although some features were used from Peter Galberts designs, I love it, but a bit more fine tuning will improve my posture and comfort.


This post has been much longer than expected; I touched on batch size but will next time talk more about jigs and quantity production, hopefully soon!



Summer Plans



This Spring I decided to have a quieter summer, a chance to spend more time with my Family, so no bookings were taken for any of my usual Summer shows, and it felt good to know I wouldn’t be spending the next few months on the road.  Then an email from the States arrived inviting me to Maine to teach a course and put on an axe making demonstration at Lie Nielsen Toolworks. I went over with my daughter Jenn for the first two weeks in July. I would have put a blog post up about this but when we got home we promptly lost the memory card with all our photos on. We realised that a lot of  what I had done had been duplicated, I forged an axe with Roy Underhill and images of that popped up all over the internet, but there were a lot of images that I thought would never been seen again so I was so pleased when the card finally turned up a few days ago.

Two Georges

I spent most of my time working in this shop when I was at Lie Nielsen- these two guys, referred to by everyone as the Georges were great, George Stevens on the right and Old  (!) George on the left. This was the prototyping workshop, not production and was filled with wonderful old machines, lots of cast iron, hand cranks and exposed pulleys and gears. They were extremely welcoming and helpful, I was concerned as to how they would respond to me turning up and making lots of noise and mess in their workshop. Old George helped me with some cutting and welding and at first was a bit bemused by my seeming inability to measure anything – ‘ I need 10, or 12 at about…. this long ( wave of my hands)’ but after a week took in in his stride.




Another slightly stilted photo of me, this time with Peter Galbert, behind us is the smoking detritus of a Lobster bake, lobsters and clams steamed in seaweed over charcoal. A fabulous evening at the open house put on by Tom Lie Nielsen, more about that in another post. It was so informative meeting Peter, we talked tools and bevel angles and immediately clicked; it was great to speak to someone with the same mindset as to how tools work. When I finally got back into my workshop I applied some of the theory that he had described in the use of his Travisher to a Drawknifelike design I have been toying with for the last two years, I had to re-vist my A- Level physics and draw out forces diagrams but all was clear and a couple of bends with the Oxy Propane torch and the tool was transformed. And yet it flies directly in the face of what we discussed about Drawknife theory in Maine! I got a copy of his book Chairmaker’s Notebook and I highly recommend it, doubt I will ever make a chair, but now want to.


A couple of weeks after we returned I had another email from Deneb at  Lie Nielsen. They needed, at pretty short notice, tooling for courses that Peter Follansbee and Jogge Sundqvist were teaching. These orders will take a lot of time, but it seemed churlish to refuse, I have met Jogge a few times and know that he uses my tools, and Peter has been very vocal in his praise for my work and was keen to have my gouges, twca cams and adzes for his bowl carving course, all these tools are handled. I make all my handles from green wood and it has been nice to spend some time in my workshop with clean hands.



I have a good stock pile of straight green ash and although it would be quicker to buy in copy lathe turned handles that is not the way I want to work. It also gives me a chance to use my tools in a production setting which tells me a lot about edge holding and handle design and comfort. By chance I had lent most of my tools to a friend and the only axe I had was the one pictured, it was kept really for historical reasons as my designs have moved on from this early example, but I was really pleased to get re acquainted with it.  I would normally let them dry naturally before a final fit and finish, but time is extremely short and currently the micro wave is working at hard as I type this; every two minutes the machine pings and my youngest shouts out ‘Dad! Dinners ready!’ in a few weeks she might tire of this joke, but currently it is still fresh.


Dinners Ready


In light of this and other commitments I have- A course at Barns, a run of three shows in September and a Family holiday squeezed in I have taken the decision to shut my online shop for a while, it is no secret that I have difficulty keeping up with stock at the best of times but having a completely empty shop or turning up to shows with no stock to sell makes no sense at all.  I have, I suppose technically left it open so you can view what is on it but have reduced the stock levels to zero, I did also put all the prices to zero to make it obvious that no purchase could be made but the site then said ‘ This item is free!’ so I reset everything to £999 as a further deterrent to people trying to make a purchase.  On a positive note not having the shop open has brought home to us just how much time is spent packing and answering emails. Hopefully I plan on using this time to put up some more blog posts:  My trip to the States, some thoughts on my current working practices and ethics, and plans for the future, including axes and adzes.

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