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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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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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



The boring machine from the tool show in February, repaired, scraped, re-assembled.  The rack and latch still need some adjustment, that round hole in the cap is about 3/32″ off.  Otherwise, after cleaning up the usual dings and grunge, a serviceable tool.


The old waterstone box got an epoxy liner.



holds two quarts…


everybody likes clean water…


new plate glass,


the entire kit, ready to travel…

And two new boxes of old-growth redwood, sides not quite fitted, bottoms glued up, those pieces of bubinga on top will be stone cradles.  These will be assembled with epoxy, not gorilla glue like I used on the first one.



Outdoors in good light on a summer day, with flat stones and clean water, one can see with remarkable clarity how a blade changes as it’s ground on each grit.  Some of that Japanese steel is tempered so hard that an India stone won’t put a dent in it, and while Arkansas stones will cut Japanese steel, they’re primarily finishing stones.  English or American tools (19th c. cast steel was mostly from Sheffield, following Huntsman’s crucible process) respond well to either oilstones or water stones, unless they have been quench-hardened and not properly tempered.

Lately, I have been sharpening with an India stone and a hard Arkansas stone on my workbench, giving the waterstones a rest while I repaired their box.  Oilstones will produce as sharp an edge as any other method, on European and American tools, even the alloy steels.  Sharpening framing chisels on winter days outdoors, oilstones trump.  Flattening oilstones that have worn hollow is a massive chore.

Diamonds are expensive, and since I have some doubts about where they actually come from, I won’t invest in diamonds.  (If you happen to consider Marples Blue Chip a good chisel, and you’re spending $100+ on diamond stones:  re-examine your priorities.) Sharpening with paper:  really, really, really sharp, yeah.  But the backs won’t be truly flat on your chisels and plane irons, and the bevels will take on a slightly rounded micro-bevel, fine for planing, not so good for chiseling.  Use the 220 paper to flatten your water stones and get on with it.

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Work in Progress


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

Even with the best of intentions, I may never finish this house we live in.  Not for lack of trying, but life does get in the way of building sometimes.  Ten years ago borrowing money was way too easy, watching friends go down the rabbit hole of debt.  We avoided that trap, and instead managed to pay off the original mortgage and keep buying materials and building.

[I have this litany that I use to explain my roofing system.  Rafters, regardless of size and distribution, cost roughly $1/sq. ft.  The 1×6 pine car siding that I use for ceiling costs about the same, ditto for polystyrene insulation, and metal roofing.  Four dollars a square foot, materials not labor.  Estimating joinery: materials 20%, labor 80%, if you are quick and efficient.  Don’t expect that to pay for hand-planing, or finishing; certainly not overhead or profit.]

Timber framing works well that way.  One room at a time.  The principal tools are always Geometry and a sharp chisel, acquire the rest as you need.  Four posts, four beams, rafters, braces, lumber.  Get a roof on, the rest will follow.  Walls can be filled in with just about anything, doors and windows need not be expensive.  Time and Patience serve when Cash and Strength are short.

It does help to have a general plan.  The house should above all be a response to the site.  We all need shelter from the biting winds of winter, mad-dog summer sun, pounding rain.  Give yourself over to the logic of A Pattern Language, it’s all about archetypes.  Sketch, dream, draw plans and elevations, build scale models, keep a watch on dumpsters and flea markets, one man’s trash…

Somewhere in a house, you should be able to see out in all four cardinal directions at once.  Light, unobstructed, will penetrate the darkest corners of a room.  Everyone needs a fire at times.  If you can’t figure out what’s comfortable on your own, watch the cats.

The Cherokee people, I’ve been told, have a specific word for “keeping one’s house together”, nuanced to include the gestalt of familial relationships as well as general maintenance.  Curtis Rodgers told me a story back in the 80’s, about how the old Cherokee families had out of necessity built houses with whatever was available, adding on rooms as growing families required.  Along came FHA financing in the 50’s, they were encouraged to spend oil revenue money and move into newly built houses, which they didn’t have the know-how to maintain.  They could no longer “keep the house together”…


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Tolerance and Precision


Lufkin…Starrett…Brown & Sharpe…The Holy Trinity

Skeat:                                                                                                                                           precision: (L>OF) precis, strict. (L) praecidere, to cut off near the end.                   tolerance: (L>MF) tolerantia, endurance, sufferance.

precision: accuracy, degree of refinement in measurement, etc.
tolerance: permissible variation in dimension or weight; forbearance.

In particular, I am obliged to Mr. H. Wedgewood for his publication entitled ‘Contested Etymologies in the Dictionary of the Rev. W. W. Skeat’. I have carefully read this book, and have taken from it several useful hints. In reconsidering the etymologies of the words which he treats, I have, in some cases, adopted his views either wholly or in part. In a few instances, he does not really contest what I have said, but notices something that I have left unsaid…Hence the number of points on which we differ is now considerably reduced; and I think a further reduction might have been made if he could have seen his way, in like manner, to adopting views from me.
from the Preface to the Third Edition, Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (tolerance and precision, in one brief paragraph…)

I have encountered a lot of different attitudes about precision in woodworking, as in “How close do you want this?” House framers are usually satisfied when the difference is no greater than ⅛” (praecidere: cut off near the end), finish carpenters and cabinetmakers measure to the finer side of 1/32″, hand plane enthusiasts can shave as fine as .0003″ off a surface. As I see it, if you can cut to the shop standard, your work should be acceptable. Tolerance: permissible variation in dimension.

Precision, expressed in the tools of the machinist: accurately divided rulers, micrometer calipers, dial indicators, etc., is thus subject to tolerance, “How closely does it need to fit?” Tolerance can also accomodate changes in dimension of parts, the space that allows a drawer to operate during a humid season, for instance.

On a summer job in my teens, I assisted an older black man, Edward Perkins, a master millwright and a Methodist minister. Perk was an exacting teacher. We spent a lot of time fitting the bearings and sprockets on the massive shafts that pulled the conveyor chains that lumber rides along its way through the sawmill. The shafts: several hundred pounds of cold-rolled steel, three inches in diameter, twenty-some feet long. Once they were on horses, my job was to make a bearing race slide easily from one end to the other. My tools were a large mill file (clerk, “Do you want one of these little bastards?” customer, “Nope, I’m gonna need one a’ them big mother f***ers!”), emery cloth, and a ball-pein hammer.

The other men joked about my teacher, that he was so slow you had to make a mark beside him to see whether he was moving. The fastest way, it turned out, was to do things right the first time. Drive something into place with the ball-pein, and two men and a sledgehammer can’t get it apart. One part out of sequence, and the entire assembly has to be taken apart and done over. All the little empirical lessons of mechanicking…precision, tolerance, patience, sequence of assembly…never force anything. The effort required to move a jammed piece is exponentially greater than the effort required to put it there. Simple in theory, difficult in practice.

So, all measurements are precise within tolerance, OK?

The other meaning of tolerance seems to have been largely forgotten in our society: forbearance, endurance, sufferance. If we add the Latin precedent precis as an adjective, strict tolerance would mean to my mind an imperturbable patience. No one has ever suffered my ignorance any more gracefully than did Edward Perkins during that long, hot Mississippi summer of 1969. In particular, I am obliged

n.b.  The little tool at lower left is (to my reckoning) a patternmaker’s draft gage.

Posted in architecture, boatbuilding, carpentry, traditional building, woodworking | 3 Comments

blue sky


The Russian Bantry Bay Gig, Penetanguishene, 1994

If you can find a copy of Barns, Beams, and Boats online, it is the foundation story behind this boat.  Lance Lee, fresh out of the Marine Corps. in the 60’s, went to Europe to study with Kurt Hahn, then to the mountains of North Carolina to build the first American Outward Bound.  Hurricane Island was the second, and with that experience behind him, Lance approached Pete Culler, the venerable boatbuilder.  Culler later opined that Lance “talked too much.”

Maybe…but what talk.  Lance then went to the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath and persuaded them that the old sail- and oar-powered watercraft, the legacy of the Maine coast, needed attention.  So began the Apprenticeshop, and Barns, Beams, and Boats.  Soon enough, Lance challenged the fiscal authority of the board of directors by setting out to build a pinky schooner.  When they gave him his walking papers, he move on up the coast to Rockport and founded the Landing School.  A second pinky schooner, Perseverance, came down the ways there, and a dory, Cussedness, both belonging to Lance Lee this time.

The stroke of genius there was Atlantic Challenge, designed around the profoundly historic Bantry Bay Gig, a French admiral’s longboat lost off the south coast of Ireland in 1796, recovered from a cellar by American servicemen during WWII, ultimately finding sanctuary in an old church at Dunlaoghaire.  With a group of French kids working alongside his American students at the Landing School, Lance built two Bantry gigs and put them through their paces at the 1986 Statue of Liberty centennial celebration in New York harbor.

The Russian boat came about because a Russian tourist visiting the Landing shop handed Lance a letter from St. Petersburg, inspired by a magazine article.  A log boatshop was built on the banks of the Neva, tools were donated, and by 1994, a nearly finished boat traveled by rail to Murmansk, to be transported to Maine by the Russian Navy,  “Nyet!”  The resourceful apprentices worked their passage on a Russian-Canadian fishing trawler, disembarking in Nova Scotia with a 38 foot longboat and a large bag of kasha to negotiate through customs.  They finished the boat at the new Apprenticeshop in Rockland, arrived in Canada with fresh paint still on their hands and clothes, and allowed us the privilege of rowing and sailing this awesome boat.   Thanks.

Posted in architecture, boatbuilding, traditional building, woodworking | 2 Comments

Lefty, no Pancho


“Each stick was carefully mortised or tenoned by its stump, for I had borrowed other tools by this time.” Henry David Thoreau

There’s a wealth of information packed into that sentence. Most people reading Walden will never grasp that Henry was using square-rule to lay out his timbers, rather than the traditional but more cumbersome plumb-line scribe. Scholars have since determined that the broadax “returned sharper than I received it” most likely belonged to Bronson Alcott, speculated that Henry was carryin’ on with Miz Emerson, and posthumously chastised him for his self-admitted carelessness setting the woods afire. Henry’s technical competence remains a mystery, far beyond the pale of the academy.

I still own a copy of Cecil Hewett’s English Historic Carpentry that I acquired in 1986, shortly after I dropped out of college for the last time; it was good reading material, and I had it practically memorized by the time I encountered an actual timber frame a few years later. That would have been when I landed a job writing for Joiners’ Quarterly, the circus that was Steve Chappell at that time. Fox Maple had been a going timber framing business in the mid-80’s, supplemented by teaching workshops, selling tools, and the publishing venture. By the time I arrived at Brownfield, Steve had leveraged himself way beyond his cash flow, the real estate market had corrected, and he was swimming against the current. I do remember that the first and only actual raising I was part of there was re-erecting an old barn that had real English tying joints, and that we finished up by truck headlights, in freezing rain turning to snow. Deja vu.

Later, having more or less settled down in Arkansas, I met a bright young lesbian woman with a half-finished, half-rotten yellow pine timber frame that some worthless yahoo had just walked away from. A mortise-and-tenon joint in un-seasoned pine, left to the weather for a few seasons, is an ideal place to cultivate rot (there are about seven distinctly different colors of mold that thrive in damp wood, including one that sprouts tiny flourescent orange mushrooms). Wearing through a series of helpers, I spent most of the next year replacing every stick of wood in that entire frame, hoisting the pieces with a thirty-foot oak mast, using a forked limb for a jib-boom and a couple of block-and-tackles. The day I began that job my dog Jake got run over by a car in front of my house. I was jinxed from the start. The owner eventually sold that charming little cottage and paid her way through law school with the proceeds.

During that interval, I worked for a few months at Red Suspenders, Tim Chauvin’s highly regarded timber framing operation in Nacogcoches, Texas. Tim was an enterprising guy who really wanted to be the Texas Tedd Benson. I had to quickly find out who exactly Tedd Benson was, and so I read the brown book, the one that everybody else had been reading while I was absorbing Cecil Hewett and John Ruskin. Timm’s shop was driven by a massive antique square-headed timber-sizer (American, before Yates joined up) powered by a Detroit Diesel truck engine. Noisy, dusty, the occasional small part flying off, it spat out more-or-less perfect yellow pine timbers on a fairly regular basis, and the layout regimen was what has come to be called “mill rule” by the initiated. We were all wearing ear protection most of the time, conversation on the job was limited or mindlessly banal, and nobody ever bothered to explain the resident layout system to me, beyond just “cut to the line.”

The real reason I was at Red Suspenders, though, was because I had been accepted by the Timber Framers Guild as an instructor for an upcoming workshop (standards were lower then). Exciting stuff, an octagonal gazebo, designed by none other than Ed Levin. I was pretty new to the trade at the time, but I did have a fair grasp of geometry and decent carpentry skills. Still, since I hadn’t yet proven myself luminary material, I got shunted off to make some short but necessary 5″ x 5″ posts on a crappy Makita planer that nobody ever used. Which posts some wanna-be-luminary nimrod immediately mis-cut (every last one of them) so I had to find some more stock and make another set of short 5″ x 5″posts. As punishment for nimrod’s mistake, I got sent off to work in a machine shop owned by a really spooky John Birch/NRA type, machining some designed-on-the-fly stainless steel plates to take the place of the really cool curved laminated splines that we were supposed to have made, but somebody had forgotten to bring the epoxy.

Those steel plates became a real problem later on, because the raising crew kept running their only 1 1/4″ auger bit into the steel while trying to drill pegholes. The girts that the splines were being pegged into were doubly redundant, and a smaller peg would have been acceptable. The tie-beams were cleverly splined through the octagonal kingpost on a sort of over and under pattern, while the entire roof load was borne back to the posts with a clever series of braces that half-lapped onto the tie-beams. The half-lap joint was more-or-less 45º. As in 43º or 47º, depending on which tie beam, from what reference plane exactly??? A lot of head-scratching over a problem that could have been easily resolved by lofting over a floor.

Having ingenuously offered to carve the date (1994) and the Guild’s logo (TFG), I ended up off to one side working on one of the redundant girts, a supporting role which I would reprise again at other raisings. Indirectly, that bit of carving led to another couple of jobs, carving chamfer stops in heavy oak timbers and hanging out with some honest-to-God timber framers. I carved all the details on the lych-gates in Atlanta, then spent a couple of miserably cold months in a cow-barn in rural Ohio carving lambs-tongues for what would to become a posh country club clubhouse. At this point, they still weren’t letting me cut any timbers. By observation, I picked up a few layout tricks, Japanese ink lines and Precision Square Rule, that I was able to try out later on my own projects.

Penetanguishene, Georgian Bay, Lake Huron, Ontario, 1995. First time I had ever been outside the good old USA, and we were setting out a French-scribed timber-framed pavilion with a genuine Galois-smoking French journeyman, Marc Guilhemjouan. My introduction to plumb-line scribe technique (this hadn’t been covered in any of the earlier books) and once again I managed to divert a whole lot of attention to carving names and dates into some of the timbers. I still hadn’t earned a seat at the luminary table, and I can’t recall cutting much actual timber. I had taken a few notches in my belt, mostly because timber framing wasn’t paying me jack-shit so far.

Back home (Alice and I had pretty much concluded that the Pancho-and-Lefty itinerant-timber-framer lifestyle wasn’t cuttin’ it…) I came up with a job turning some gorgeous old hand-hewn barn timbers into a frame for a lake cabin. Co-incidentally, we were working in a barn that had been built by s. w. yahoo, mentioned earlier. By now, I was able to discern that his primary canon had been Benson’s brown book, and that his braces didn’t fit very well either. [He (s. w. yahoo, not Benson) had worked off centerlines, and didn’t use a marking system that placed brace mortices definitely one side or thother, resulting in several “special” braces.] Matthew and I cut three lovely king-post trusses with 12″ x 12″ tie beams (off-cut blocks are sitting in my living room) fitted up the frame sans braces as per client’s request, and I was off on another project when it got raised and have never seen the finished frame. Client reports that he loves it, however.

I had been extolling the virtues of timber framing for several years, and finally persuaded the City of Fayetteville to contract with me for a modified version of the Penetanguishene pavilion. We started off in the fall with a truckload of green oak 8″ x 8″ timbers, unceremoniously dropped by a fat guy in a dumptruck, built a plywood floor to loft the king-post trusses over, and cut the remaining timbers by “square-rule”. On the Saturday designated for raising, the sky was falling. Sunday turned out blue skies and sunshine, we quickly assembled a crew, raised the frame without incident, and went our separate ways. No celebration, no acknowledgement, nada. Winter was coming on hard by the time the roof was completed, the parks and recreation director had by this time decided that she could have had a steel structure for about the same cost, so ‘Bye! Still nowhere near becoming a luminary, four months of hard work had netted me about $2000.

The next spring a freak windstorm toppled the maple tree in our front yard, so I limbered up my grandaddy’s broadax and hewed three nicely cambered 6″ thick beams from the limbs. Mixed with leftover oak from the park pavilion, four 6″ X 8″ posts, a couple of 6″ x 6″ plates, and 4″ x 6″ for principal rafters, the resulting frame became our front porch, 8 feet x 12 feet, standing totally detached from the body of the house for several years. The average person can’t tell from the street that I laid out the English tying joints by square rule.

Out at the Botanical Garden on the other side of town, Clancy and I set about cutting a Thoreau cabin completely off-grid, using hand tools on green oak 6″ x 6″s, trying to get the board of directors to see the advantage of having a presence on-site. The executive director was sanguine about solar panels and cellular uplink possibilities, but drew the proverbial line at the proposed composting toilet. The building itself was being done by Saturday volunteers, cost nothing more than materials, and in time the beauty of hand-cut timber framing gave way to the demands of utility; what-might-have-been became instead a storage barn for shovels and flowerpots and fertilizers.

Along about that same time, a local environmentalist camped out in a 150-year-old post oak tree, attempting to delay the inevitability of a commercial development. In the ensuing bonfire-of-the-vanities runup to a mayoral race, the trees themselves became political collateral. Until they were summarily cut down, by which time I had struck a deal with the developer. Turns out, he was a member of the Episcopal congregation in Atlanta, of the lych-gate project several years back, and he just gave me the trees, with the proviso that I move them off-site pronto.
That cost me $1000 cash, and for the next several years I was the exclusive owner of the biggest tar baby in town. Finally, in early 2003, the Botanical Garden reluctantly agreed to re-imburse me the moving expenses and take over possession of the logs, intending to build a new timber-frame barn. I was briefly in the running to direct a workshop, but after I adamantly refused to cut joinery in green oak at an advertised March workshop, to be raised six months or so later, I became persona non grata…
The project was awarded instead to the Timber Framers Guild, to be led by Timm Chauvin. Not a big surprise, exactly. I had been practically begging the Guild to come here and host a workshop for years, and now I had just given it away. Reason prevailed, milling timber and the workshop were re-scheduled for October, raising to follow immediately, massive longleaf pine timbers became available for beams and plates, and my specimen thirty-inch oak logs were reduced to 8″ x 8″s, leaving a lot of siding lumber.

Meanwhile, another project had materialized, a boathouse on the Thames bankside at Abingdon, financed partly with the promise of carving the names of patrons in exchange for donations. I proferred my expertise as a man of letters, and was presently embarked trans-Atlantic. What I hadn’t reckoned; that even though I was technically a member of the Guild, I was not a part of the official Guild delegation (read: not a luminary). This was made quite clear to me at the first meeting, in which American exceptionalism designated “square rule” as the official layout system. I went off to explore Oxford’s bookshops, where I found a copy of Elements of Typographic Style, a great help for anyone who has the need to lay out letters.
The project moved ahead splendidly, a virtual Tower of Babylon, with the English carpenters stodgily thinking along metric plumb-lines, exceptional Americans pedantically evangelizing the advantages of square rule while mentally dividing by 2.54, German journeymen fearlessly defying the British conventions of tool safety and the inevitable onset of tinnitus. Raising was a spectacle, four bents being lifted into place in sequence with a massive gin-pole and block-and-tackle. The fourth and final bent, eight-inch letters proclaiming its importance, went up amid cheers that quickly subsided into sighs of dismay. The bent was noticeably lopsided. Apparently, one post was too long, one quick cut with a circular saw should fix that. But, No! Instead, another £2000 piece of German oak had been relegated to the boneyard.
Quickly lowered to the ground, measurements revealed that somehow the timbers had not been properly referenced to the master plan at the very beginning, and now both principal posts would have to be replaced.
Had English carpenters been allowed to lay out a ground plan and loft their principal timbers off it, rather than accept the compromise of using the unfamiliar square rule method…? Had the Americans been a bit less dogmatic about the rightness and efficiency of their method, would the budget contingency for the entire boathouse…? I can’t say…but I did spend the next week helping to make right what had been done wrong; cutting timber alongside Curtis Milton, the only one of the original Guild delegation to stay.

By the end of 2003, it had become painfully clear to me that there was no reason to continue paying dues to the Guild. I would never be anointed by the luminaries, that much was certain. In the beginning, the Guild had offered access to like-minded individuals, people that I enjoyed working alongside. Those people, ironically, weren’t running the Guild, or the businesses. In fact, more and more, the businesses were running the Guild, and the craftsman-like people I so enjoyed working with were drifting away as well.
What the Guild could never offer: stable long-term employment, competitive wages, collective bargaining; in short, any relief from the predatory labor-relations practices of the businesses which were rapidly becoming its major stockholders.
Freelancing is risky at best; I’ve done it all my life with measured and often dubious success. Putting yourself, your tools, essentially life and livelihood on the road to work for less money than a reasonably intelligent person can make staying home is just shy of lunacy. Or, maybe it’s just for those with a trust fund big enough to cover the shortfall. Over time, I discovered that while the Guild itself might well be a truly noble enterprise, human nature could be venal and self serving if given the chance, and the people I had ended up working for were merely human, at best…

In 2005, Alice and I had paid off our mortgage, then borrowed money to buy a small cottage on nearby Mt. Sequoyah, but when the other buyer that our deal was contingent on backed out, we decided to invest in home improvement instead. A windfall cherry tree from another neighbor’s back yard yielded a 20-foot cambered beam, we spent $1000 on a stack of 16-foot yellow pine 6″ x 6″s, and I stumbled onto some seasoned oak timbers that had been cut for a log-building project, then abandoned. By the following winter, the living room had expanded to join the existing front porch, we were under roof and I was busily hanging doors and making windows.

One door closes, another opens…Winter 2007, a real plum landed in my lap, cutting a smokehouse frame for the state historic museum in Little Rock, on a 12-foot x 12-foot brick foundation, cypress timbers, modeled on a Virginia precedent from the HABS archives. I might have proceeded to lay out by story pole if the museum’s historian had bothered to confirm the foundation measurements sooner. Instead, I was cautioned not to cut any of the sills, joists, plates, or beams to length until the footing had been re-excavated at the penultimate hour. Plenty of time to work on posts, studs, braces, and rafters, and it all worked out fine in the end. Friends showed up to help with raising, a local brewery provided beer, and we had a grand time.

That fall, I started work on the most ambitious house I had ever built, a crossed gable with big valley rafters, working with a client who wanted to start a timber framing business and keep on building. By the time we had raised the frame at the end of the following summer, the building market was on the skids, and his initial enthusiasm had been tempered by reality and a year of hard work. The nascent timber framing business was put on hold indefinitely, Dale set up a law office, and I resumed my old practice of restoring houses and furniture. Timber framing wasn’t happening in a flat-lined economy.

A few years later, the historic museum again, this time a blacksmith shop. Different architect, dumber than a rock. I had to design every aspect of the timber frame for him, and endure numerous pointless conferences and conference calls with masons and blacksmiths from Williamsburg. Finally, April, 2011, timbers on the ground. Then, in the hinkiest deal I have ever encountered, the museum fired me in the middle of a job. Why? Short version is that the museum’s director had rigged a bid with a contractor who should never have been considered qualified for historic work. This deadbeat had absolutely no historic building credentials, no skills, no crew, an expired contractor’s license, a fraudulent bond company, and yet they bent over backward to award him the contract. Un-f***ing-believable. Recovering my equlibrium, I persuaded Dale, the former building client/almost business partner who just happens to be a lawyer, to help me file a breach-of-contract suit against Department of Arkansas Heritage. Nearly a year later we presented our case, and were awarded a $20,000 settlement. By mutual agreement, I will never work for Heritage again.

Co-incidentally, at the same time that I was suing the state, I received a fellowship grant from the NEA for $6,000, which we immediately applied to materials for an upper room addition on our house. Because the terms of the grant required me to teach an apprentice I hired Ben Jackson, and basically let him cut the frame while I was off in Little Rock fighting the state in court. Ben and I went over each layout thoroughly, making sure that he had the necessary tools, and I left it with him. We raised the frame in the summer of 2012, and I am still working on finishing. Ben went on to Bainbridge Island last November (2014), and cut and raised a barn frame, using one of my boring machines and what he learned by working with me. He is way past apprentice, well on the way to becoming a luminary.

Over the years since my inauspicious beginning with Chappell, I have designed, cut, and raised twenty or so timber frames, using various layout and cutting techniques, hand and power tools as the situation required. As part of a cutting or raising crew, as a woodcarver, on several Guild-sponsored projects and workshops, or just helping out, I’ve taken part in another twenty. Enough experience to be able to say with confidence that I know something about how timber framing is done. I can, after a fashion, create value by converting rough timber into sensible structure, and with a proper roof, walls and windows we have a light, open vaulted space that is pleasant to live in. Whether I learned timber framing from being active in the Guild would be debatable. Certainly the Guild helped, as did certain people in the Guild. Most of what I know has been earned through experience, and I have paid dearly for it at times.

What I realized early on: the Timber Framers Guild is not in any sense egalitarian, in fact it is hierarchical and elitist by its very nature and organization. At workshops and conferences, there has always been a marked difference between the campers and the airport/rent-a-car/motel crowd, which is to say there is essentially a blue-collar/white-collar dichotomy. Out of curiousity, I visited the Guild website recently. While I can link to, or visit, any business through the Business Council website, I cannot access individual Guild members. A quick visit to the Carpenters Fellowship website reveals a much different accessibility structure.

Twenty years ago, at Nacogdoches, the Guild’s board of directors revealed to the general membership that the Guild was not actually the 501c3 educational non-profit organization it claimed to be. Instead, when the paperwork had been submitted to the IRS years earlier, the Guild had been designated a trade association. At that time (1994), a proposal was floated to create the Business Council, which would take on the trade association status, leaving the Guild free to pursue it’s lofty goal of educating timber framers and thus qualifying for the coveted 501c3.
Never having achieved more than jack-Mormon status in the first place, I am poorly qualified to judge the Guild’s luminaries. I do know that the same summer I was carpentering in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Benson & Co. demolished an historic 18th c. barn at nearby Concord in partnership with WGBH Boston’s This Old House, and the ensuing Donnybrook almost destroyed the Guild.
Fences were mended somewhat by the successful Guelph Bridge project in 1992, which brought a commensurate increase in membership, a major face-saver after the summary firing of the executive director earlier that same year. Things went pretty smoothly for the next ten years or so. Membership was up, the inception of TTRAG mollified the insulted historic preservationist minority, Bruce Gardner quietly left center stage after bankrupting a couple of companies, and Joel and Will stepped in as co-directors. I never filled out the application form to become a luminary, and finally gave up on the whole damned outfit after helping to clean up their mess at Abingdon.

Which would have advanced the most at the end of a month—the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necesary for this—or the boy who had attended the lectures at the Institute in the meanwhile, and had received a Rodgers penknife from his father? Which would be more likely to cut his fingers?   Henry David Thoreau

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3-drawer Empire chest






Details are Empire, construction isn’t at all typical of Empire.  Cherry primary wood is light in color, suggesting Pennsylvania or further north.  Sides are 1″ thick white pine, drawers have cherry fronts with properly dovetailed poplar sides and roughly planed bottom.  Back is ½” white pine with very heavy circular saw marks.  Original finish appears to be shellac, dissolves with denatured alcohol.  Mushroom knobs are replacements, Philippine mahogany.  Simple, elegant, utilitarian.

Nutting doesn’t offer much on furniture of this type (there’s one Empire chest of drawers in his entire book).  Pieces commonly referred to as American Empire are typically a frame construction.  Heavy posts, 2″x 2″ or more in section, with turned feet, mortised and tenoned rails, and captured panels.  Hallmarks are mushroom knobs, turned feet, and wide tail/narrow pin drawer joinery.   for more on American Empire.  I have found scant historical information on the type.  If you have anything to contribute, please contact me.

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Dowland Manuscript

Vault evolution

The Old Records of the Fraternity of Operative Freemasons, under the general name of Old Constitutions, or Old Charges, were written in the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. The Dowland Manuscript, as reproduced in Hughan’s Old Charges (1872) is believed to be a copy of an older one from the beginning of the sixteenth century; the rather modernized spelling makes it more intelligible to the general reader.


Before Noyes floode there was a man called Lameche as it is written in the Byble, in the iiijth chapter of Genesis; and this Lameche had two wives, and the one height Ada and the other height Sella; by his first wife Ada he gott two sonns, and that one Jahell, and thother Tuball, and by that other wife Sella he gott a son and a daughter. And these four children founden the beginning of all the sciences in the world. And this elder son Jahell found the science of Geometrie, and he departed flocks of sheepe and lambs in the field, and first wrought house of stone and tree, as is noted in the chapter above said. And his brother Tuball found the science of Musicke, songe of tonge, harpe, and orgaine. And the third brother Tuball Cain found smithcraft of gold, silver, copper, iron, and steele; and the daughter found the craft of Weavinge. And these children knew well that God would take vengeance for synn, either by fire or by water; wherefore they writt their science that they had found in two pillars of stone, that they might be found after Noyes flood. And that one stone was marble, for that would not bren with fire; and that other stone was clepped laterns, and would not drown in noe water.

Our intent is to tell you trulie how and in what manner these stones were found, that thise sciences were written in. The great Hermarynes that was Cubys son, the which Cub was Sem’s son, that was Noye’s son. This Hermarynes, afterwards was called Harmes the father of wise men: he found one of the two pillars of stone, and found the science written there, and he taught it to other men. And at the making of the Tower of Babylon there was Masonrye first made much of. And the Kinge of Babylon that height Nemrothe, was a mason himself, and loved well the science, as it is said with masters of histories. And when the City of Nyneve, and other cities of the East should be made, Nemrothe, the Kinge of Babilon, sent thither three-score Masons at the rogation of the Kinge of Nyneve his cosen. And when he sent them forth, he gave them a charge on this manner: That they should be true each of them to other, and that they should love truly together, and that they should serve their lord truly for their pay; so that the master may have worshipp, and all that long to him. And other moe charges he gave them. And this was the first tyme that ever Masons had any charge of his science.

Moreover, when Abraham and Sara his wife went into Egipt, there he taught the Seaven Sciences to the Egiptians; and he had a worthy Scoller that height Ewclyde, and he learned right well, and was a master of all the vij Sciences liberall. And in his dayes it befell that the lord and the estates of the realme had soe many sonns that they had gotten some by their wifes and some by other ladyes of the realme; for that land is a hott land and a plentious of generacion. And they had not competent livelode to find with their children: wherefore they made much care. And then the King of the land made a great Counsell and a parliament, to witt, how they might find their children honestly as gentle-men. And they could find noe manner of good way. And then they did crye through all the realme, if there was any man that could informe them, that he should come to them, and he should be soe rewarded for his travail, that he should hold him pleased.

After that this cry was made, then came this worthy clarke Ewclyde, and said to the king and to all his great lords: ‘If yee will, take me your children to governe, and to teache them one of the Sevean Scyences, wherewith they may live honestly as gentle-men should, under a condicion that yee will grant me and them a commission that I may have power to rule them after the manner that the science ought to be ruled.’ And that the Kinge and all his Counsell granted to him anone, and sealed their commission. And then this worthy Doctor tooke to him these lords’ sonns, and taught them the scyence of Geometrie in practice, for to work in stones all manner of worthy worke that belongeth to buildinge churches, temples, castells, towres, and mannors, and all other manner of buildings; and he gave them a charge on this manner:

The first was, that they should be true to the Kinge, and to the lord that they owe. And that they should love well together, and be true each one to other. And that they should call each other his fellowe, or else brother, and not by servant, nor his knave, nor none other foule name. And that they should deserve their paie of the lord, or of the master that they serve. And that they should ordain the wisest of them to be master of the worke; and neither for love nor great lynneage, ne ritches ne for noe favour to lett another that hath little conning for to be master of the lord’s worke, wherethrough the lord should be evill served and they ashamed. And also that they should call their governors of the worke, Master, in the time that they worke with him. And other many moe charges that longe to tell. And to all these charges he made them to sweare a great oath that men used in that time; and ordayned them for reasonable wages, that they might live honestly by. And also that they should come and semble together every yeare once, how they might worke best to serve the lord for his profitt, and to their own worshipp; and to correct within themselves him that had trespassed against the science. And thus was the scyence grounded there; and that worthy Mr. Ewclyde gave it the name of Geometrie. And now it is called through all this land Masonrye.

Sythen long after, when the Children of Israell were coming into the Land of Beheast, that is now called amongst us the Country of Jhrim, King David began the Temple that they called Templum D’ni and it is named with us the Temple of Jerusalem. And the same King David loved Masons well and cherished them much, and gave them good paie. And he gave charges and the manners as he had learned of Egipt given by Ewclyde, and other charges moe that ye shall hear afterwards. And after the decease of Kinge David, Salamon, that was David’s sonn, performed out the Temple that his father begonne; and sent after Masons into divers countries and of divers lands; and gathered them together, so that he had four-score thousand workers of stone, and were all named Masons. And he chose out of them three thousand that were ordayned to be maisters and governors of his worke. And furthermore, there was a Kinge of another region that men called Iram, and loved well Kinge Solomon, and he gave him tymber to his worke. And he had a son that height Aynon, and he was a Master of Geometrie, and was chiefe Maister of all his Masons, and was Master of all his gravings and carvinge, and of all other manner of masonrye that longed to the Temple; and this is witnessed by the Bible in libro Regum the third chapter. And this Solomon confirmed both charges and the manners that his father had given to Masons. And thus was that worthy science of Masonrye confirmed in the country of Jerusalem, and in many other kingdomes.

Curious craftsmen walked about full wide into divers countryes, some because of learning more craft and cunninge, and some to teach them that had but little conynge. And soe it befell that there was one curious Mason that height Maymus Grecus, that had been at the making of Solomon’s Temple, and he came into France, and there he taught the science of Masonrye to men of France. And there was one of the Regal lyne of France, that height Charles Martell; and he was a man that loved well such a science, and drew to this Maymus Grecus that is above said, and learned of him the science, and tooke upon him the charges and manners; and afterwards, by the grace of God, he was elect to be Kinge of France. And when he was in his estate he tooke Masons, and did help to make men Masons that were none, and set them to worke, and gave them both the charge and the manners and good paie, as he had learned of other Masons; and confirmed them a Chartor from yeare to yeare, to hold their semble wher they would; and cherished them right much; And thus came the science into France.

England in all this season stood voyd as for any charge of Masonrye unto St. Albones tyme. And in his days the King of England that was a Pagan, he did wall the towne about that is called Sainct Albones. And Sainct Albones was a worthy Knight, and steward with the Kinge of his Household, and had governance of the realme, and also of the makinge of the town walls; and loved well Masons and cherished them much. And he made their paie right good, standinge as the realm did, for he gave them ijs. vjd. a week, and iijd. to their nonesynches. And before that time, through all this land, a Mason took but a penny a day and his meate, till Sainct Albone amended it, and gave them a chartour of the Kinge and his Counsell for to hold a general councell, and gave it the name of Assemble; and thereat he was himselfe, and helped to make Masons, and gave them charges as yee shall heare afterward.

Right soone after the decease of Sainct Albone, there came divers warrs into the realm of England of divers Nations, soe that the good rule of Masonrye was destroyed unto the time of Kinge Athelstone; that was a worthy Kinge of England and brought this land into good rest and peace; and builded many great workes of Abbyes and Towres, and other many divers buldings; and loved well Masons. And he had a son that height Edwinne, and he loved Masons much more than his father did. And he was a great practiser in Geometrie; and he drew him much to talke and to commune with Masons, and to learne of them science; and afterward, for love that he had to Masons, and to the science, he was made a Mason, and he gatt of the Kinge his father a Chartour and Commission to hold every yeare once an Assemble, wher that ever they would within the realme of England; and to correct within themselves defaults and trespasses that were done within the science. and he held himself an Assemble at Yorke, and there he made Masons, and gave them charges, and taught them manners, and commanded that rule to be kept ever after, and tooke then the Chartour and Commission to keepe, and made ordinance that it should be renewed from Kinge to Kinge.

And when the assemble was gathered he made a cry that all old Masons and young that had any writeinge or understanding of the charges and manners that were made before in this land or in any other, that they should show them forth. And when it was proved, there were founden some in Frenche, and some in Greek, and some in English, and some in other languages; and the intent of them all was founden all one. And he did make a booke thereof, and how the science was founded. And he himself bad and commanded that it should be readd or tould, when that any Mason should be made, for to give him his Charge. And fro that day unto this tyme manners of Masons have beene kept in that forme as well as men might governe it. And furthermore diverse Assembles have beene put and ordayned certaine charges by the best advice of Masters and fellowes.

If anyone carefully examines this legend, he will find that it is really a history of the rise and progress of architecture, with which is mixed allusions to the ancient guilds of the Operative Masons. Geometry also, as a science essentially necessary to the proper cultivation of architecture, receives a due share of attention. In thus confounding architecture, geometry, and Freemasonry, the workmen of the Middle Ages were but obeying a natural instinct which leads every man to seek to elevate the character of his profession, and to give it an authentic claim to antiquity.

This has been carefully copied from the Encyclopedia of Freemasonry (1918 The Masonic History Company).  The illustration is from Banister Fletcher’s History of Architecture on the Comparative Method (sixteenth edition 1968 Scribner’s), the last page of which is an advertisement for 40 x 27 sheets of the plates by B. T. Batsford, Ltd. London.  As of my last inquiry, Batsford has no available copies of the illustrations.  ML

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Never and Always


Winding sticks on a board, preparing stock.  Mind the gap.  This is the first start-to-finish benchwork project for me in several years, salvaged Asian mahogany from a pallet.  After sorting out most of the embedded gravel, nails, and broken drywall screws with my Parks planer, I have a small pile of ½” scantling, 3 ½” wide.  Just enough to make a small box.  No wonder exotic wood is so expensive!


The G in the masonic emblem, what does that stand for?  Most people will tell you “God”, but if you look back far enough, even the Christian God has had a lot of different names.  I prefer to believe that it represents Geometry.  What one chooses to believe is subjective, but when pressed for an answer, I find that for me there are three constants.  Gravity has never yet failed to present, you can dial it up or down with caffeine or alcohol but it’s still there.  Geometry is constant once you understand that geometry is purely theoretical, reality is made up of crooked lines, and most solids don’t resemble their Pythagorean ideals.  Behind door number three: Gullibility, the original G-spot.

“A man may imagine things that are false, but he can only understand things that are true.”    Sir Isaac Newton 

So much for leprechauns, unicorns, credit default swaps, and conspiracy theories involving tall white aliens…we are all subject to confirmation bias, believing something because it fits our particular interpretation.

Enter the luminary:  Several years ago, I was laying out a particularly complicated piece of joinery, and happened to have a conversation with one of the resident sages of timber framing.  OK, I live on (under?) a rock, and there isn’t enough flat space to set up a decent establishment, so I was busily developing the post heads of my English tying joints by square rule (on the stick), which was working out just fine, thank you.

The luminary informed me that the old  carpenters always laid out the post head “in the establishment” meaning engaged in a pile of other timbers situated over a geometric template marked on the floor (or the ground), of which by necessity there would have to be two in this instance.  When someone, anyone tells you that a particular practice is always or never…listen to your G-spot.  With absolutes such as always and never there’s no room for interpretation and innovation.


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I have a couple of dozen wooden spokeshaves, different sizes, each unique. Each one of them, without exception, has a distinct curve in the blade, parallel the long axis. This curve has a direct relationship to the curve in a drawknife blade, as it existed before industrial processes took over in the 60’s-70’s. Broadaxes notably exhibit a three-way curve (as do the slick, and the better carving tools) in fact they are dangerously ineffective with a perfectly straight edge, whereas the modern drawknife with a jointer-knife blade is merely awkward.
Do you think the machine-straight edge of the current variety of spokeshave is informed by the curve? Or by the machine?

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Ars Longa

Vita Brevis

Tempus Fugit

Carpe Diem

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