Loyalty , Ethics and Reason


He settled on the inner ash wood sill, leaning against the doorjamb–cypress timber the skilled carpenter planed years ago and set up with a plumb line.

Contrary to the attribution in the drawing, that quote is actually from the Odyssey.  In particular, it is from Book XVII, and is, as far as I can determine, from Chapman’s translation.  I have been unable to actually find a copy of Chapman’s to confirm that.

Chapman’s translation of Homer’s epic the Odyssey, originally published in folio, 1614–16, has become so rare as to be inaccessible to the general reader, and comparatively unknown to the more curious student of old English literature.   Bartleby.com

I have found Samuel Butler’s translation:  “He sat down upon the threshold of ash wood…against a bearing post of cypress, which the carpenter had skillfully planed and made to join truly with rule and line.”    and Alexander Pope’s “Then, resting on the threshold of the gate, Against a cypress pillar leaned his weight, Smoothed by the workman to a polished plane.”

The line quoted occurs after Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, actually taking his rest and possession of his estate after dispatching the suitors and proving himself to Penelope.  None of this would matter, except that I was reading about George Chapman the other day, and remarked this in the Wikipedia entry:

In 1585 Chapman was approached in a friendly fashion by John Wolfall, Sr., who offered to supply a bond of surety for a loan to furnish Chapman money “for his proper use in Attendance upon the then Right Honorable Sir Rafe Sadler Knight.” Chapman’s courtly ambitions led him into a trap. He apparently never received any money, but he would be plagued for many years by the papers he had signed. Wolfall had the poet arrested for debt in 1600, and when in 1608 Wolfall’s son, having inherited his father’s papers, sued yet again, Chapman’s only resort was to petition the Court of Chancery for equity.  As Sadler died in 1587, this gives Chapman little time to have trained under him. 

Of all the works that have been translated into English, none have had more lasting impact than the translations of the Old and New Testaments, and the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer.
I picked up a book at the library last week, Wikipedia U, an academician’s purported comparison of Wikipedia with the classic liberal arts education model and traditional print-based sources of knowledge.

Lately, we have been watching the PBS presentation of Wolf Hall, which might be considered an acceptable (and fairly academic) revision of history, and which gives us a quite favorable portrayal of Thomas Cromwell. The BBC has the sort of authority that carries weight, much like Encyclopedia Britannica or the OED.

On another subject, trying to get some general idea of when George Chapman (first English translation of Homer) lived and worked, I searched Wikipedia, and came across the bit about Rafe Sadler and one of his agents entrapping Chapman into poverty (not a small thing in that era). I can only surmise that Rafe Sadler learned his tricks from Cromwell (as Cromwell’s protege), who in turn had learned (contracts and collection?) from the Florentine banker who mentored him. That Cromwell had a knack for accumulating money is unquestionable.  If the con worked so well on Chapman, why wouldn’t Sadler (and Cromwell) have employed the same device many times over?

In Cromwell’s first encounter with Thomas More in Wolf Hall, More attempts to put Cromwell on the spot by asking a question about Tyndale. Cromwell’s answer is carefully phrased, but implies that he is sympathetic to Tyndale’s efforts (Cromwell is a literate man, and a reformer). Tyndale was killed in Belgium on charges of heresy, but his work was later used extensively in the Great Bible of Henry VIII, as well as in the King James Version.  I can only suppose that in much the same way, every subsequent translation of Homer has owed something to Chapman. Keats and Coleridge made Chapman eternally visible through their poetry. Ironically, Gutenberg Project does not list Chapman’s translations, even though they appear to have every subsequent translation.

Two of the more notable human qualities, loyalty and ethics, are on display in Wolf Hall, loyalty being prominent. Cromwell’s loyalty to Wolsey is truly admirable (it will be the undoing of Anne Boleyn). He pragmatically transfers that loyalty to Henry Tudor following Wolsey’s death. I have read both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and can’t recall that Hilary Mantel concerns herself overmuch with Cromwell’s ethics. Might the effect of Cromwell’s ethics be apparent in the ruination of George Chapman? I have never found mention of this in an academic source, learned it from Wikipedia.

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Planing with oil


I may have missed something.  Most of the 80’s, for instance, and I still don’t own a smartphone.  If we were going to draw a line at owning something smarter than ourselves, where would that line be?  Not far out of reach, I should think.  That slab of walnut was giving me fits.  It took the edge off my plane blades in just a few strokes, and I was spending more time sharpening than planing.  So, I got out the linseed oil.


Planing timbers is a bit different from planing lumber.  Oak distorts all to hell for one thing, and after a few years it’s harder than Chinese algebra.  Power planers will, after a fashion, flatten the surface of a timber, but letting a big Mafell dictate where you stop planing can result in a huge pile of shavings and a much smaller timber.  And, where you pass over a knot, it will always tear out on the downhill side.

I found an old wooden smoother and shaped a rocker in the sole and a crown in the blade (what the English call a ‘scudding plane’), using it at first to just clean up what the planer had left rough.  Circling the knot, the timber doesn’t actually have to be flat, just uniformly smooth.  Wooden smoothers can be a bit tricky to adjust, transitional smoothers will do the same thing.  Maybe Lie-Nielsen will wake up someday and start making transitional planes.  Maybe they will make them without lateral levers.  Maybe monkeys will fly…


Later, as I became more confident with hand planing, carpal tunnel and tinnitus having set in for the duration, I discovered that oiling the timber before beginning eased the labor of planing, and not surprisingly I was spending less time sharpening.  I have never found this mentioned in any book, nor has anyone else ever told me that it would work (although I have long suspected that there are quite a few trade secrets I’m not privy to…).  This is the quickest way I have found to get a decent finish, and it beats the hell out of power-sanding.

Raw linseed oil: I have hand-planed lots of yellow pine timbers. Found that I got more consistent results by applying several coats of RAW linseed oil mixed 1/1 with turpentine (or mineral spirit) before planing. Enough oil penetrates and remains in the surface to protect against dirt and moisture, not enough to gel (it will also resist the absorption of excess glue). Raw linseed oil does not contribute to spontaneous combustion, is generally non-toxic, and won’t leave a mess of semi-hardened varnish inside planes that are left overnight. It will polymerize if given sufficient time to react with oxygen. Linseed oil finishes have no UV filter, and darken perceptibly.  You can add stain to the oil/turps mix and let it penetrate before planing off.

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Wooden Spoons

IMG_0756IMG_0694I used to carve spoons and give them away.  It took so much time, I would have been at a loss trying to either get a decent wage or to sell them at any reasonable market value.  Besides, it seemed like a really gracious way to show appreciation for a talent I didn’t have.  Karen Jackson told me that the hook on the end was traditionally for the cook, so that she could hang the spoon on the side of the soup pot.  It always took me nearly as long to make the hook and resolve the handle as it took to carve the rest of the spoon.

Eventually, I concluded that I was simply overworking my spoons (they are, after all, one of the most rudimentarily utilitarian of objects) and started cutting them out on the bandsaw.  Over the years, I have collected a number of old spoons from flea markets.  Like most old things, they have had a life of their own and there’s something to be learned…

Somehow, my blog got picked up by Woodspotting (big whoop!).  So, I go over there now and again, and “troll” the unsuspecting and enthusiastic young woodworkers eager to expound their new-found expertise.  One such expedition inspired me to share a bit, and produced this exchange:


My neighbor came over the other day, asking for help sharpening a couple of Frost Sloyd knives and a hook. The knives were easy, the hook nearly impossible. I did what I could, showed him a couple of tricks, and steered him to Robin Wood (he’s watching YouTube, anyway). My spoon-carving techniques evolved in the 70’s & 80’s, before there was this wild proliferation of advice on everything conceivable. (Do you remember the Dan Dustin article from the old Fine Woodworking? I probably had it memorized at one time.)

Anyway, the hook knives have always seemed clumsy to me. I prefer a small, short gouge that I can direct away from my fingers (it’s also a lot easier to sharpen), seasoned wood even though it’s much harder than green, and a spokeshave with the handles cut off. My favorite knife is an old farrier’s knife that I accidentally broke the hook off of (it was useless anyway), and I use a scraper for the inside of the bowl (quicker than sanding).

Practically, I found that if I traced patterns and cut out blanks on the bandsaw, I could carve spoons almost fast enough to make minimum wage. Starting out with the hatchet and chopping block, moving on to shaving horse and French-pattern drawknife, I learn something every time.

The small spoons that we use daily (maple, plum, pear, some of them more than twenty years old) have become so familiar that I find myself offended by the coarseness of restaurant spoons. There’s something a bit vulgar about sticking stuff into your mouth when you don’t know whence it came or from what ingredients it was made.

To which I received this reply:

That FW article was probably before my time. Hook knives are excellent, especially for deep bowls. In green wood, they can work nearly as fast as a gouge. I’ve never tried to restore one, but I can imagine it would take a great deal of patience.
Thanks for sharing.

And to which I just couldn’t resist commenting:

If they can work “nearly as fast as a gouge”, why not just use a gouge?



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How To Force A Redirect To The Classic WordPress.com Editor Interface

Originally posted on Diary of Dennis:

classic editor wordpress

The Solution To Use The Classic Editor

If you are blogger at wordpress.com, this post here will help you to solve a big problem. As you have noticed, the decision makers at WordPress want to force you to use the recent new editor interface that is purely designed for mobile devices and for users who only create short-form content. This is of course a pain if you are desktop user and if you like to create long-form content as well. In this post you will learn how to get back to the classic editor permanently.

In the new editor form, we had a link back to the classic editor but that link is now gone too. WordPress does not have the intention to give us the link back as you can read here in the forums. If you go through this huge forum thread, you will find out…

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Lie-Nielsen #102


This exchange began on Monday, and I have been back and forth for a week with Lie-Nielsen’s very patient customer service rep.  For some reason that nobody seems to be able to explain, the blade dimension of the #102 block plane is slightly different now than the original.  Different enough that what was once a dependably precise tool is now just plain frustrating to use.  To be absolutely fair, I am a difficult customer.  If I can make a tool or repair an old one, I will spend the time rather than the money.  Not that I’m cheap exactly, it’s mostly force of habit.  When and if I do pony up for something, I fully expect it to live up to the bargain, and not for a mere 20 years.  Because of this kind of nonsense…

I have this Lie-Nielsen #102 block plane that I purchased in 1994, the only Lie-Nielsen plane that I own. Recently, I ordered a marking knife, and along with it a new replacement blade for the #102.

I kept noticing that every time I adjusted the blade it skewed in the throat, so I got out the digital caliper. The earlier two blades I have are (original)1.246” and 1.250” (to be reasonably precise), and the inside bearings at the throat are 1.25+”, while the new blade measures 1.226+”. The slack tolerance produces this result: turning the adjustment screw exerts a lateral force which skews the blade, every time.

What I’m experiencing is totally contrary to the logic (of Lee Valley’s block planes for instance) which uses screws to limit side play. (In fact, this problem appears to be unique to the Lie-Nielsen #102, I can’t think of another plane design where this would happen.) It will also render this particular Lie-Nielsen #102 block plane obsolete in time, if I can’t acquire replacement blades that actually fit.
I will gladly send you the plane, blades, etc. if you would rather check the accuracy of my measurements, or examine the particular mechanical issue that I have attempted to describe… Michael

There’s a couple of missing e-mails here… I cc’d someone else, he ended up getting the reply instead of me, none of which is relevant to solving the problem.  What I find frustrating in this is Deneb’s assurance that Lie-Nielsen is the arbiter of precision, even thought they have no idea why this dimension has changed by .025″.  


That is just fine. All I had said in the e-mail was that if you wanted to send in the plane as well. Then we can look it over and see if the tool is out of spec. If you would rather use it as is with the original blades, then that is fine. Please include a note with whatever you send in that lets us know what you would like us to do.

Cheers,  Deneb


To the best of my remembrance, Tom started out with the #102 block plane. An improvement on the Stanley original, and the cornerstone of Lie-Nielsen Tools, if you will. That it was somehow necessary to change the dimension by some minor increment surely made sense to a corporate number-cruncher. To a craftsman, it makes absolutely no sense at all (from 31.75mm to 31.14mm? why? why not an even 32mm?). In fact, it appears to be an attempt at planned obsolescence. The new blade simply does not work properly in the old plane. Knowing that, you might at least offer an ‘old stock’ option.   Michael


I have no idea why or when a change occurred, but I can assure you that the decision was not made by a corporate number cruncher. The reason that we did not make it 32mm, is because we do not work in metric, so fractional metric measurements are of no meaning to us. I apologize that the blades we are making today are not working in the plane that you got 20 years ago. I am not even sure if the bedding pocket for your plane is identical to what we are doing now. If you would like to send your plane in for us to check it over, we would be happy to check it out. We may even have some old W-1 blades around somewhere that we could send you. Please let us know what you would like us to do.

Cheers,  Deneb


I really appreciate your patience. Whatever the value of the plane itself, the design issue here is fascinating. Apparently, someone arbitrarily changed a critical dimension so that the blades are not backward compatible.
Several years ago, I had this minor epiphany that almost all ball bearings are manufactured to metric specs, because metric is the global standard. Thus the metric tangent. I had to calculate that, as I have nothing that actually measures in metric. And, since 32mm is a cabinet standard, why not?

That a new blade doesn’t fit properly in a 20 year old plane is another issue. Aren’t these things supposed to be heirlooms? One of my favorite planes is a pre-lateral #6 Stanley, which is (if you can trust Patrick Leach’s Blood & Gore) 135+ years old and still working fine. Eventually, all things being more or less equal, Lie-Nielsen will saturate the market for the kind and quality of tools that you are making. You may have already.

Anyway, I’m not particularly concerned about the plane itself. It still works fine with the old blade, and the measurements I gave you haven’t changed (the new blade is still 1.226+”, the plane throat is 1.25+”, the resulting .025” slop lets the blade skew sideways). There was simply no practical reason to change that dimension. It doesn’t improve anything, and as the blades wear out in the older models, they become functionally obsolete. This is not merely a technical issue.   Michael

I really don’t mean to beat up on Lie-Nielsen here.  Deneb is doing his best to represent the company’s interests, and I’m just trying to figure out why this relatively minor change happened in the first place.  Lie-Nielsen actually started out making a #95 bronze edge plane (I just looked it up in an old catalog).  The #102 came later, its blade was exactly 1 ¼” wide, and it fit tightly side-to-side at the throat.  There was no need to change that.  Ever. 

The old Stanley #102 has a 1 5/16″ blade.  I know, because I have fitted old #60 ½ blades into several of them; they are 1 ⅜” , and it just takes a bit of filing and scraping to get a perfect fit.  (I suspect that some old boatbuilder had thought of that trick long before Tom Lie-Nielsen came along.)  The Stanley #102 was also designed to be adjusted with a hammer, look at that little boss on its aft end.  

 We have three 25 year-old BMW E-30’s, all in excellent mechanical condition (Okay, one needs a new camshaft, but that’s another story).  The reason they are still running is due to German engineering, competent mechanics (re:camshaft…), and regular infusions of cash.  Precision and Tolerance…


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RIP Swarf


Officials at Colonial Williamsburg today declined to confirm the provenance of a trove of 18th century carpenter’s drawings tentatively attributed to the legendary woodworker Christop herr (Chip) Swarf, recently discovered in a local tavern. Venerated antiquarian Rawry Bumberbill, author of Two and Froe, A Carpenter’s Memoir, elaborated via Twitter, “yep they be real” by way of authentication. Further inquiries have been pointless.

According to confidential sources inside Williamsburg, what at first appeared to be a handful of unpaid bar bills, cocktail napkins, and motel receipts turned out to be actual sketches of furniture designs from the maybe-hard-to-say-possibly-later-middle 1700’s. So far attributed to Chip Swarf, forensic evidence indicates that several other hands may have been involved as well.  Archival conservation, primarily involving the removal of coffee stains and sawdust, is under way.  Handwriting analysts acknowledged that Swarf’s massive thumbprints are “…just all over everything, what a frickin’ mess!”

Inevitable comparisons to the sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, and to Cennino Cennini’s Il Libro dell’ Arte (as well as Picasso’s early work) have aroused intense speculation regarding the eventual release of this landmark document. Several publishers have expressed interest, including Lost Heart we’ve never seen a book we couldn’t lose money on Press, and Taunton whose spokesperson said, “It’s just too bad Swarf can’t be around for the book tour. I’ll bet he would be great at the swag table.”

A legend in his own mind, Chip Swarf began his woodworking career as a humble but promising apprentice in the Williamsburg cooperage. “He sure could find the bottom of a firkin!” exclaimed master cooper “Stave” Whitmore.  Higher ambitions, and crushing student loan debt, led Swarf to turn his hand to making furniture, where he quickly became an outspoken champion of hand tool woodworking. He didn’t have much choice! There weren’t any power tools in the 1700’s.

One inordinately large chest, loaded with shiny bronze planes bearing the mark L-N, has been cautiously attributed to Swarf, as have the discovery of gravity, the rational resolution of pi, and beer. Better known to the cognoscenti as Swarf’s Three-legged Stool, it is fervently hoped that the newly discovered document will illuminate these mysteries. “It’s like a huge jigsaw puzzle.” Bumberbill pontificated, “All we know for sure is that Swarf had a magnetic personality. Tools were just attracted to him; they followed him home like hungry kittens. Hell, he died with more tools than I have. He won before I even got started!”

Little is known for certain about Swarf’s later life. Apocryphal accounts abound: that he got filthy rich on book royalties and moved to Costa Rica, another that he abandoned woodworking to become a Buddhist monk in Tibet, or even that he retired to the fabled ancestral homestead in Arkansas; all seem incredulous. Pursuing this enigma shrouded in a mystery, agents for Sotheby’s have been authorized to search to the ends of the earth, or at least as far as Cleveland for an original design by Swarf.

One persistent myth still haunts the taverns of Williamsburg; that Swarf was crushed to death by a massive workbench that he had made with his own hands, with hand tools that he had made with his own hands, with hand tools…. We may never know.  Or maybe we will.  Does it really matter?  If you should eventually encounter gravity, or pi, or just happen to use an old tool…raise a glass to Swarf…may the legend live on!

n.b.  this is a work of pure fiction, any resemblance to actual persons is mere co-incidence. If…as Robb White so eloquently put it…you see yourself in one of these characters and want to take it out on my skinny ass just remember, “You got to bring some to get some.”

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Ockham’s Eraser

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”   Albert Einstein

Last week, I opened an e-mail from our public library, inviting me to access e-books through an app sponsored by 3M.  I gave it a try, but was annoyed by the requirement that I disable security on my computer in order to load the app.  After installing and opening, there were only about twenty books available.  Unimpressed; deleted the 3M app, cleared cookies, history, secure-emptied trash…

Then, I started asking the library questions about the actual cost of e-books vs. print books.  Basically, the adoption of e-books appears to be a foregone conclusion (reason be damned).  So far, haven’t received a definitive answer on cost (I doubt that they have one).  I did receive and read this:


“…the use of e-books is evolving so rapidly, our predictions must be treated as subject to considerable uncertainty. Moreover, it should be noted that factors such as social equity, community welfare, and intellectual freedom are necessarily outside the scope of the paper.”

I tried looking up definitions for Social Equity, didn’t find anything that I wanted to nail to the wall, so I went to the source, Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary.  Equity and Equality come from the same Latin root.  Apply Ockham’s Eraser* it’s one concept, not two.

According to Skeat, Equity is Justice, synonymous with Equality. Roman Law held that most customary practices had at their source deep-rooted local knowledge, combined with “Natural Reason”, or a kind of basic “Common Law”. Unspoken yet general agreement, confirmed through long-standing practice within a large social group, gave these customs legal force and a status equivalent to written law. That was the practice of the Saxon communities native to Albion prior to the Conquest. English Law was the result of the gradual usurpation of Common Law by Norman nobles and their lawyers. American Law, based as it is on English Law, is rarely capable of delivering Justice, because it’s fundamental assumption is that society is hierarchical, rather than egalitarian.

(Inclined to disagree with that last statement?  Please refer to recent seminal decisions by the United States Supreme Court:  Nobleman vs. American Savings, Citizens United…) One might infer that the current notion of social equity is synonymous with credit rating.  In fact, it will be difficult to prove that e-books actually cost less than print books.  While the initial cost of the e-book may be lower (and the publisher’s profit margin higher), subsequent license renewals and the hidden cost of consumer electronics must eventually be accounted.

“Fayetteville Public Library’s mission is to strengthen our community and empower our citizens with free and public access to knowledge.”  Printed and bound books, properly cared for, endure for centuries.  E-books are designed to expire.  In most cases it is illegal to print, copy, or distribute content from an e-book.  Over time, as e-books become a larger proportion of the available reading material, access to information will be controlled by a handful of publishers.

Remember this: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.  For anyone who followed the prosecution of Aaron Swartz or Barrett Brown, the issue of who owns and has the right to disseminate digitized information was crucial to both cases.

One of the arguments for e-books assumes that the patron will not have to visit the library to check out the e-book.  This patron will have to own an electronic device with an internet connection, which means that the patron is paying at least $50/month for the service, probably more.  Patrons who either do not own computers or do not have internet access, but wish to use the library’s computers, will visit the library.  Thus, the e-book is of limited value to the second patron, but offers a convenience to the first.

Recently, the library was given 10 USB wireless devices that provide 4G-LTE access for a computer, available on a two-week checkout basis.  The cost: $720 per device/yr.= $7200.  When I looked, all the devices were checked out.  A generous donation, a worthy idea.  Is it scaleable?  Of some 3,200 households in Fayetteville, one-fourth live below poverty according to the census figures.  Unless internet service is a higher priority than rent, groceries, and electricity, it is unlikely that those 800 households will be reading e-books.

Cost:  about the same, when we factor in license renewal, technical support, consumer electronics and data service.  Convenience: more for some than others; book-length documents are difficult to read on small devices.  Control:  ISP’s control internet access, library controls access to books, publishers control the market.

*”entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”

Posted in architecture, carpentry, food for thought, traditional building, woodworking | 6 Comments