The ragged end of a mid-summer full moon, a new star somewhere tonight.  Another birthday, another sleepless night.  A fresh grave in a clearing back in the pinewoods, hard handed men accustomed to dungarees and work boots standing in well-worn suits, umbrellas raised as they lay to rest one of their own.  Survived by…grief so raw, flowers sermons obituaries, Amazing Grace skirling into gray skies, slow steady rain, God’s tears.

Better days, riding country roads in a pickup truck, stopping at Pop’s place to sit and visit. He goes into the garden shed, comes out with a little oak barrel, pours us each a dram of homemade moonshine whisky (usquebaugh, water of life)…and at that moment I begin to understand what Abraham might have felt taking wine with Melchizedek…truths beyond our ken, genuine culture expressed in the small courtesies and hospitality of country folk sharing what they have.

Below the surface, an older South agrarian and self-sufficient never fully came to terms with the Civil War or it’s aftermath. Nothing to do with flags, plantations, or cheap whiskey, real southern roots are in Saxon England, the Scottish Highlands, Ireland’s eternal struggle…Jefferson’s yeomen farmers, small freeholders carrying in their genes the painful memories of enclosure, transportation, indenture, the loss and humiliation of the Highland clearances.  Determined to be free, southern highlanders didn’t fight in defense of slavery, but for a higher form of liberty.  We hold these truths…

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Work and Play

IMG_1507I enjoy work.  In particular, I enjoy putting my entire body and mind to work using large, sharp pieces of steel to shape timbers into structure.  Broadax, boring machine, framing chisels, the entire kit, pencils to pegs…I live for that.  Everything else is preparation.

Some people become raising junkies.  Dozens of straining bodies pushing, pulling, lifting a bent, the controlled tension of flying huge assemblies into place with a crane, raising is the carpenter’s ultimate test of his ability to imagine and execute.  Everything else is preparation.

When I dropped out of college thirty years ago, I had no idea where it would lead.  A workbench, a modest collection of old tools, a few books, very little money, that seemed like enough.  Just, whatever, get me away from that morally and intellectually bankrupt society on the hill…and so, ironically, I live now in the middle of that society and on it’s margins simultaneously.  My neighbors are college professors, or college-educated professionals (most of them comfortable in their petit-bourgeois suburban existence, never felt the need to question the status quo).

Finally: It was stated at the outset, that this system would not be here, and at once, perfected. You cannot but plainly see that I have kept my word. But I now leave my cetological System standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the crane still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!  [Herman Melville~Moby Dick~Chapter 32~Cetology]

We live in the old house with an unkempt yard and un-finished construction projects (cobbler’s children…a schoolteacher and a carpenter never had enough time and money).  Inside is controlled chaos, our “Room of Requirement” that is, or can become, whatever is needed at the moment.  Like Melville’s cetology, it may never be finished.  I can only hope that someone will come along with better ideas and skills than mine who will at least respect our intentions.

 “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”  Mark Twain

Our language allows that some people play for a living (athletes and musicians, for instance) while others must work.  Work is assumed to be productive, for some it has meaning, for most it is meaningless drudgery.  Play is leisure-time activity, weekend ball games, well-defined recreations.  Aren’t these definitions of work and play a condition of industrial society?  Are we post-industrial, yet?

The current revival of interest in woodworking (St. Christopher and the Roubo workbench, Studley tool chest, etc.) appears to be largely about discovering yourself as an individual, and materialism (there’s an inherent contradiction, btw).  Been there, done that…

We, as carpenters and woodworkers and artisans of all stripes must find common cause, common ground, collective bargaining as skilled professionals.  For some years, I immersed myself in timber framing (paying dues to the TFG, attending conferences, workshops, making a scant living) only to find the altruism and craft skills sucked dry by business and bottom line (bigger power tools=fewer skilled workers) until the bubble burst in ’07.

Sir Edwin Lutyens, the great Edwardian architect, considered architecture an ‘elaborate game’.  Timber framing is the highest form of play that I know.  Everything else is preparation.



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1938 Craftsman


Today I finished rebuilding my Uncle George’s 1938 Craftsman table saw.


a month ago, it looked like this…


broken teeth on the rack, and the pattern for casting a new one


Much thanks to Eugene Sargent, who took a couple of days this week to teach me about sand-casting bronze and allowed me to take up time on his lathe and mill cutting gear teeth on the cast pieces.  I really intended to take photos of the entire process, but once we got rolling with casting and machining, my hands were busy (and dirty).  maybe next time…IMG_1732

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We spent the day sharpening plane blades and chisels.

Evan had received a couple of Norton combination synthetic water stones from Highland Hardware, and we needed to try them out.  In spite of glowing reviews from the leading magazines, I’m not impressed.  The 220/800 stone appears to be made of silicon carbide, it is soft and smudgy and wears hollow quickly leaving a gray sludge on everything.  How am I supposed to flatten the back of a blade when the stone hollows out while I’m working it.  I really prefer using 220 silicon carbide paper on a piece of plate glass.  Messy, yeah,  but at least it’s a dry mess and it stays flat.

The Norton 4000/8000 is a bit more agreeable to work with.  Apparently, Norton grades abrasive on a different scale, the 4000 cuts fast and leaves a deeper scratch pattern than an 800 grit aluminum oxide stone.  The 8000 is OK for finishing off, but like most fine synthetic stones it glazes over quickly.  The other stones that I have been using are an 800 King Brand aluminum oxide stone and a 1000/6000 combination stone.

Sitting here in northwest Arkansas, just south of W-M world headquarters, I can count on my fingers (still have 10, and it doesn’t take all of them to count the skilled woodworkers here) the number of people who even know that a chisel can be sharpened, much less how to do it and get consistent results.  Not that there are any substantial rewards for having that skill (as David Bowman used to say:  “Writing a good editorial is like peeing your pants while wearing a dark suit; you get a warm feeling but nobody notices.”)

Because it’s on my dashboard, I logged in with “The Carpentry Way” and read a multi-page dialogue about the intricacies of sharpening with natural Japanese water stones; which went off on a tangent about how you can’t possibly understand Japanese woodworking unless you make a genuine effort to become fluent in the Japanese language, and you can’t possibly become fluent in Japanese language without immersion in Japanese culture.

WTF?  I just needed to get my tools sharp.  The few bona-fide Japanese-speaking people who live here are either university academics or corporate lackeys, and they aren’t likely to bother parsing verbs and vowels with an autodidactic old-hippy pseudo-intellectual college-dropout bewhiskered curmudgeon like me.  Besides, what’re the odds that a typical Japanese knows any more about the intricacies of traditional carpentry than the average American?

Why does woodworking have to be so damned esoteric, anyway?  There’s a cacophony of dubious information out there: books, blogs, TV and magazine articles, from the oh-so elitist to the ingenuously banal.  Many of them trying to sell something that you probably don’t even need.  I’m fed up with sales pitches, self-absorbed sophomoric pedantry, defensiveness, condescending snarky responses.  Knowing how to sharpen a chisel properly is a significant accomplishment, but it is only a beginning, a rudimentary and fundamental part of a much larger whole.  However you choose to sharpen, every system will have its advantages and its weaknesses; you will get results and there will always be swarf.

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Boggs Tool & File


I received a new file in the mail today.  That’s it in the top of the picture.

I haven’t been sharpening handsaws for some time.  Other major life issues took precedence, and besides I had several sharpened saws in reserve.  Meanwhile, having acquired a few nice antique backsaws, I decided to delve back into the saw-filing enterprise.  Only to find that the current buzz is that Nicholson (biggest file manufacturer in the US) has decide to outsource their file production to Mexico, and let quality control go to hell in a hand-cart.  Headed straight for the bottom line.

So, I started exploring alternatives and found that some of the more highly recommended choices (Bahco, Oberg) weren’t necessarily in stock either.  Looking around on YouTube, I found a video on how to use battery acid and baking soda to restore files (not yet, amigo…).  And, finally, as I searched for more information on file sharpening, Boggs Tool & File kept coming up.

Turns out, Boggs doesn’t use battery acid, but a sophisticated steam pressure driven abrasive process that they (and numerous third-party reviews) claim produces a better-than-new file.  Last Monday, I decide to call their 800 number and see if they would sharpen my old saw files.

Harry Boggs answered the phone [can we just put this in contrast to my recent Lie-Nielsen experience?], answered my questions, gave me the time of day and then some, and told me a whole lot about files and how and where they are made.  Mostly, Boggs sharpens farrier’s rasps and double-cut files, smaller teeth are more difficult.  He generously offered to try sharpening some saw files for me, and also offered to send me a new Japanese saw file (of which he only has a few left).

Someone (who would actually need that many files?) recently bought 300 of those files, almost clearing out Boggs’ stock of them, and since there’s a minimum order of 1000, he was a bit reluctant to place the order unless he was certain of the demand.  Sooo….do you really want a source for good saw files, or do you just wanna bitch about Nicholson???

Because, if enough people contact Harry Boggs looking for quality saw files, he will order those 1000 Japanese files, and we can all settle down and sharpen our backsaws.

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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.

[Upon the Ashen floore his limbs he spred,
And gainst a Cypresse threshold staid his head,
The tree wrought smooth and in a line direct
Tried by the Plumbe and by the Architect.]  that’s Chapman.  The original is from Robert Fitzgerald.  (thanks to Jeff Ward @visibledarkness )

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.

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.  In fact, as I re-read this it occurred to me that maybe Chapman’s was just an earlier version of the student loan…

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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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