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!



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