Learning Curves 11


IMG_1399Not exactly sitting pretty, I swamped and soaked myself.  Even worse, I lost my balance getting aboard, and slammed my foot so hard into the bottom that it split the hull.  This is the sort of thing that the books and websites don’t bother to mention; what a tender craft this can be, or how damage can happen and how to deal with it.  Repairs are underway back home in the Research and Development Department, with a round of Irish coffee for the crew.  At the moment, I feel a lot more like Toad than Water Rat.

The discovery of the day, though, happened because Evan and I went fishing in the rain, and after getting thoroughly soaked went for a drive.  On a whim, he suggested Pump Station Road, site of an old dam and pumping station on the White River.  There’s potential here.  Good structure, great location.  Maker space, anybody?

IMG_1393 IMG_1395 IMG_1396 IMG_1397 IMG_1398

There’s plenty of water here, year-round, and so close to town.  If she hadn’t been taking on so much water, we could have explored a bit, maybe next time.



“The canoe implies a long antiquity in which its manufacture had been gradually perfected. It will, ere long, perhaps be ranked among the lost arts.” -Thoreau

Posted in architecture, boatbuilding, carpentry, unscholastic achievement, woodworking | 3 Comments

Learning Curves 10

“…and there were also with them other little boats.” Mark 4:36

We spent the past four days day-tripping around the Ozarks, trying out the canoe, car-topping on our latest BMW, a 1987 325e.  Found a set of vintage Thule brackets on eBay, made bars from a piece of locust, lashed her down with a couple of ropes, and  hit the road.  So far, aside from time and a tank of gas, we have ~$200 invested in this venture.


First stop, Beaver Lake.  Matt Ross has always been supportive of my boatbuilding ventures, so we launched at his dock at La Rue, topped off with a bottle of French cider.  A stiff breeze from the northeast made for some pretty strong swells, and she rode them easily.  Chippy took his first boat ride, salty dog…he stayed pretty close, spent the rest of his time there running along the shore barking like mad.


Lake Leatherwood at Eureka Springs is a gem.  Owned and operated by the city, it has rental cabins, a beautiful old CCC timber and stone pavilion, and doesn’t require a fee or permit to launch boats.  They’re also dog-friendly, good news for Mr. Chips.  She heads up beautifully into a slight NE breeze.


Saturday we drove to the Buffalo River, stopping at the Ponca launch area.  A short carry, wade through a shoal, and a hundred yards or so upstream we had the river to ourselves for the afternoon. Far from the madding crowd.  Chippy has gained his sea legs, and is now posing as figurehead, naturally.


Alice took a few turns ’round the pool, showing off the lines of this lovely little boat.  Leaning back on the thwart puts your weight just a bit aft of center, raising the bow slightly.


Lake Wedington, off Hwy. 16 west of Fayetteville, belongs to the National Forest Service. I don’t know who actually runs the place. Doesn’t matter.  Just don’t bother, you aren’t welcome, and there are better places to get on the water.  Lake Fayetteville and Lake Sequoyah, both Fayetteville city property, are similarly over-regulated slime pits.  Lincoln Reservoir, a few miles southwest of Wedington, is open to the public and has walking trails and rock climbing.



Posted in boatbuilding, Uncategorized, woodworking | 7 Comments

Un-American, The New Patriotic

Un-American, The New Patriotic.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Learning Curves 9

The canoe hull is complete, fiberglass and epoxy inside and out; outwales, inwales, decks, and thwart.  All the essential pieces are in place, and I can still throw it over my shoulder and walk comfortably, with the double paddle tucked inside.  23 pounds, with the paddle.

There’s still a bit of sanding and epoxy to make the hull absolutely fair, and I intend to paint the outside.  Maybe varnish, but there’s a quart of my favorite indigo enamel on the shelf, and paint is so much easier to maintain.


So, I have accomplished what I set out to do six weeks ago, which was to take the wood from a pallet that was definitely in the waste stream, and turn it into something useful and beautiful.  Now, it will be going into other streams…

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Learning Curves 8




To escape the rain, I moved the canoe into the painting studio, and proceeded with fiberglass and epoxy.  The sealer coat was a bit tacky, positioning the fiberglass cloth was tedious, and it was late Tuesday afternoon before I actually started wetting out.  No turning back, so we quickly set up lights, and I finished well after dark.


Next morning, I fitted up a vacuum to the random orbital sander, and scuffed down the high spots.  Noisy work, but very little dust.


I found a design for horses to support a canoe on one of the websites, and couldn’t quite decide whether to build yet another set of horses, when Alice hit upon the idea of simply inverting the canoe-building horse.  A couple of straps and clamps, and I was ready to start smoothing out the inside for fiberglassing.

This hull is really narrow at the stems, my planes wouldn’t reach the last several inches, and gouges and chisels were not particularly effective.  The right tool, as usual, was just lying around waiting for me to find it.  This morning, I got out the yari-kanna, or spear plane, and it is amazing.  It takes about five minutes to figure out how to use this tool, and half a lifetime to master.  Next time, we’ll shoot video.IMG_1304


Strip planking created a really unpredictable grain pattern.  Typically, alternate strips run in opposite directions, like planing plantation-grown mahogany.  On flat work with rowey grain, you can skew the plane body to make a narrow shearing cut and plane parallel, one direction then the other.  Inside the hull, I couldn’t do that with the little hollowing planes, because the length of the sole and the curve of the hull limits the cut.  The spear plane can approach any place from the most advantageous direction, provided you can read the grain.


Posted in boatbuilding, carpentry, Uncategorized, woodworking | 2 Comments

Learning Curves 7


Back outside with a sealer coat of epoxy, ready for fiberglass.  Which I ended up sanding down to bare wood again Sunday morning.  The few drops of rain that hit the uncured epoxy left white streaks and spots, and the hull showed lots of flaws that should have been sanded out anyway.  My hands are a bit numb from all that time with the random orbital sander, hate the machine, love the result.  IMG_1247

We took a few days off to drive over to Pangburn, on the Little Red River below Greer’s Ferry dam, to visit friends and spend an afternoon trout fishing.  We came back exhausted and energized, ready to take on the finishing of this boat.  I spent Friday morning planing the inside, removing a part of the stems that seemed excessive, and sanding down the outside.

Evan and I dismantled another pallet behind the furniture store, this one had planks of various Philippine mahoganies, some bland some interesting.  They may become part of the next canoe, or the next one.

Here’s another map of Fayetteville, with the watershed drawn over a topographic.  I will, at some point, sit down and draw this out properly.  The contour lines on this USGS map are too fine to show up in this reproduction, but they are there.  And, honestly, I haven’t taken a lot of artistic liberty with the curve.


Posted in boatbuilding, carpentry, woodworking | 1 Comment

Learning Curves 6

We finally stitched the bottom into the hull this afternoon, and all those pieces of spruce have become a singularity.  We might have cleverly taken apart a tree and made it into a boat, pieces of several trees more likely, at least it isn’t landfill.

IMG_1236 IMG_1238Here she is, cut loose from the mold, slightly foreshortened by the camera lens, and ready for the next step.  According to the bathroom scale, she weighs ~15 pounds, we will see how much weight epoxy and fiberglass add, and there’s quite a bit of planing to be done on the inside.

So far, I have filled four grocery bags with shavings.  Mostly spruce from planing the hull, a bit of white oak from the stems, and some walnut from the thwart.  Decks will be minimal, probably sassafras, some pieces I ripped for the stems that didn’t work out.  And there will be an outwale (bonus question: What did they call the gunwale before guns were invented?), possibly walnut, or white oak that I have on hand.

Posted in boatbuilding, carpentry, woodworking | 1 Comment

Learning Curves 5


The beginning of all things lies still in the beyond in the form of ideas that have yet to become real.”  I Ching, hexagram 1, The Creative
IMG_0904We live on the upper part of Scull Creek, which flows west and north out of Fayetteville.  South of us lies a ridge, which is part of a larger watershed.  Tracing a line on the map, following for the most part Old Wire Road south out of Missouri, thence along Mt. Sequoyah, crossing through the middle of Fayetteville along Maple St. and over the University of Arkansas campus, thence west and finally south again, the ridge rises between the West Fork of the White River and the Illinois River, finally meeting the Boston Mountain without ever crossing a watercourse.  In fact, the watershed forms a fairly symmetrical  sine curve as it passes through Fayetteville.

Scull Creek flows into Clear Creek, which is a tributary of the Illinois River, which meanders into Oklahoma before it empties into the Arkansas. The state of Arkansas has a  regrettable tendency to pollute the Illinois with human waste and agricultural runoff, which has resulted in several lawsuits.  Across the watershed, Town Branch flows into the  White River, which passes through a series of hydroelectric reservoirs before making it’s way across the state to join the Mississippi.  Curiously, the White River meets the Mississippi just a few miles north of the Arkansas River’s confluence with the Mississippi.  They are connected by a man-made shipping channel.

All the water that falls on the north side of the Fayetteville watershed flows generally northwest, thence west, and finally south to join the Arkansas.  Water falling on the south side of that watershed flows generally southeast, thence east, and finally north to become the White River.  A gigantic spiral of flowing water on the surface, situated over porous limestone that probably carries similar but larger flows of water in the same directions.

Standing at the lookout on Mt. Sequoyah, looking south and west of Fayetteville, highway 62 passes through a dry gap. The Ozark terrain is entirely eroded plateau, mostly sandstone above limestone, so that dry gap had to have been formed by erosion. The most likely explanation is that at one time the West Fork of the White River flowed through the gap and into the Illinois River. At some point, that flow would have been captured by the White River, most likely as a result of seismic activity. The Fayetteville fault cuts through the center of our circle on a NNE bearing, more or less following the major axis of the sine curve.

We are sitting over a hydrological vortex, bisected by a fault line. Powerful stuff.  This canoe, which is composed of the curves that occur in flowing water, is being built over that vortex, and will be launched in one of the streams that flow out of it, thus becoming part of the stream itself.




Posted in boatbuilding, food for thought, metaphysical theology, unscholastic achievement | 1 Comment

Learning Curves 4

Today, I went ’round the bend.


Actually, there are several problems with the material I chose. Spruce is much stiffer that either Atlantic cedar or western red cedar, and I cut the strips 1/4″ x 15/16″. There are more scarf joints than I would care to count, as many as half-a-dozen per stick. The extremely hollow ends, full bilges, and nearly plumb stems require that at some point strips have to twist about 75º, which left the bilges describing a tangent rather than the chord of an arc. Ripping them in half seems to have solved that problem.
I have started the bottom, a long elliptical section which will meet the strips, and bending a thin batten across suggests that they can be fitted up fair. The hull and the bottom are about 4″ apart right now, but I am gaining only ⅜” for each session of fitting, gluing and planing off.  On a good day, I can put in four strips.
Some boatbuilders have questioned the reliability of Markkula’s drawings and offsets, but they seem to be fairly accurate, if slightly unorthodox. As I round the bend of the bilge, the hull is rising off the molds 1/4″ and has completely parted from the mold nearest the stem. The curves are fair and sweet, just a bit fuller than expected. I believe that everyone with good sense has avoided that hollow forefoot in favor of something more practical.


Posted in boatbuilding, carpentry, woodworking | Leave a comment

Learning Curves 3


Once lost, the information on primitive watercraft cannot, as a rule, be recovered. 


“It might be said fairly that those who had the best opportunities to observe, including many whose profession it was to record the culture of primitive man, showed little interest in watercraft and have left us only the most meager descriptions.  Even when the watercraft of the primitive man had obviously played a large part in his culture, we rarely find a record complete enough to allow the same accuracy of reproduction that obtains, say, for his art, his dress, or his pottery.  Once lost, the information on primitive watercraft cannot, as a rule, be recovered.

However, as far as the bark canoes of North America are concerned, there was another factor.  The student who became sufficiently interested to begin research soon discovered that one man was devoting his life to the study of these craft; that, in a field with few documentary records and fewer artifacts, he had had opportunities for detailed examination not open to younger men; and that it was widely expected that this man would eventually publish his findings.  Hence many, who might otherwise have carried on some research and writing, turned to other subjects.  Practically, then, the whole field had been left to Edwin Tappan Adney.”  (Howard Chapelle, The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America, Smithsonian 1964)

There it is, everything we know about bark canoes between two green buckram covers.  John McPhee’s Survival of the Bark Canoe draws on Adney’s work, and it’s influence on Henri Vallaincourt, who builds birchbark canoes in Greenville, New Hampshire.  Several years ago, Wooden Boat published an article about a 19th c. birchbark canoe that had been discovered in an English barn.  Vallaincourt was the authority called in to examine the craft and advise on conservation.  It would seem that one artisan is sufficient for a craft skill to survive.

IMG_1207Craft skills, I believe, lie in mastery of edge tools.  That simple.  If you can sharpen a chisel, fettle a plane, then any shape that you can imagine is conceivable.  Machines won’t do that.  You have to compromise with a machine.  There is no compromise with a chisel.

“There are some things that cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring.  They are the very simplest things, and because it takes a man’s life to know them, the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave.”  Ernest Hemingway


Posted in boatbuilding, carpentry, woodworking | Leave a comment

Learning Curves 2


Progress, like peace, comes dripping slow.  Running in and out of spring showers to get tarps on everything, I conceded to the weather gage and moved upstairs.  Lighting is much better; windows for daylight, ample incandescents for night work, and my workbench is up here.  Chippy is asleep on a pile of Cashmere sweaters in the upstairs bedroom, so he isn’t underfoot at the moment and I can write this in peace.

I put a few screws through the hull, dispensing with the awkward straps and clamps we had used to pull the sides together.  The curved blocks screwed to the molds are working; I now have about three dozen Pony clamps plus blue tape, which may well be one of the most effective clamps ever invented.IMG_1214As we moved from the relatively straight sides into the turn of the bilge, the width of our strips simply would not conform to the twist of the hollow forefoot.  Wider strips buckled outward at the bilge, becoming tangent rather than chord, and tended to split at the extreme twist between stations 1 & 2.  The solution turned out to be ripping them in half (Occam’s table saw…).

At this point, the hull is slightly off the molds, but the line is fair, and the narrower strips are allowing me to roll back inward at the bilge.  The stem has continued to narrow, from 17º on each side at the sheerline, to 10º at this point ~10″ above baseline.      IMG_1213

Markkula’s drawings (from Attwood Manley’s Rushton and his times in American Canoeing) are not as thoroughly developed as one might expect from a professional designer, but the table of offsets is sufficient to produce a body plan and (apparently) a fair set of molds.  He obviously didn’t draw anything that he couldn’t see, so there aren’t any sections for the stem, only a profile.  But, damn, what a noble profile.

Posted in boatbuilding, carpentry, Uncategorized, woodworking | Tagged | 1 Comment

Learning Curves 1

For the past couple of weeks, I have been busy building a small wooden canoe.  The prototype is J. Henry Rushton’s 10’6″ Wee Lassie.  Every part of this boat is salvaged wood, the actual planking is from a pallet discarded by the furniture store down the street.  Fourteen pieces of spruce, 1″x 4″x 6′, rough plain sawn lumber that with a bit of planing and ripping became close-grained quarter-sawn strips.  Evan and I have become quite good at making up scarf joints with matching grain.

fitting the stem
IMG_1178the molds with ribbands IMG_1185  four strips and a lot of clamps, beginning to look like a boat IMG_1189fitting the next strip while glue sets up on the last one.  mold #1 nearest the stem, requires the strips to twist inward while making an inverse bend.
IMG_1190One of the many reasons this project is taking so long.

Posted in boatbuilding, carpentry, woodworking | 6 Comments

Rhenish Helm


This old black & white is still one of the best images I’ve come across.  (pl. 15, Illustrated Glossary of Architecture 1966, Harris & Lever)

There is precisely one Rhenish helm among all of England’s historic buildings, atop the tower of the Church of Saint Mary in Sompting, Sussex.  Certainly, there must have been others, but this is the sole survivor.  The distinctive form: four gables with a hipped roof above; a definitive feature of churches in the Rhineland, dating from the Romanesque.  Cecil Hewett, in English Historic Carpentry (1980, Phillimore & Co. Ltd.), places the origin of Sompting’s tower ca.950-1050 CE ; more recent evidence indicates that the timbers are from the 14th century, when the church belonged to the Knights Hospitallers.  Another authority, Cartwright, claimed that the tower was originally 25 feet higher, but was lowered during a late-18th century restoration.  http://www.sussexparishchurches.org/content/view/45/33/ has a thorough description of the building and it’s history.

It’s just possible that they are all correct.  The form certainly existed as early as the 11th century, the 14th century timbers may have been replacements of originals, and there are taller versions of the Rhenish helm.  Hewett’s drawings of Sompting are mostly of the core structure, and I have attempted to create a model based on his drawings, basic geometric proportion, and a fair amount of conjecture.

This is what Hewett shows of the structure: the crosstrees, king post, wall posts, rafters, purlins and braces.



The core structure, showing joinery.  And just for a sense of scale, from the back cover of English Historic Carpentry, a photo of Cecil Hewett standing on the cross tree.


The study model.  Note how the lower rafters join the feet of the upper rafters.  All the rafters must be on the diagonal axis, so that the upper planes fair with the roof plane, and the lower rafter cannot set above the plane of the upper rafter.  This is substantially different from Hewett’s drawing, but the only way to effectively resolve the planes.  IMG_0967

IMG_0966This model is 16″ x 16″ x 40″, intended as  1/12 scale.  The materials are reclaimed Eastern white pine, ¾”x ¾”, ½”x ½” and ⅜”x ½”; scaled 8″x 8″, 6″x 6″ and 4″x 6″.  From the photo, it is obvious that the Sompting timbers are considerably larger.

“The architectural and structural concept of the Rhenish helm is extraordinary; but its execution in carpentry at Sompting is a work of such assurance and competence, achieved with such economy of means, that it both indicates the work of a master and suggests the previous existence of a tradition of framing such works.”  Cecil Hewett

Posted in architecture, carpentry, traditional building | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Restoring a wooden plane

The first planes I had were a Stanley 5 ½ and a #4, so I passed over the old-fashioned wooden planes because they didn’t have all the “advanced” adjustments.  I also made a few wooden planes early on, but it still took years for me to appreciate the elegance of a traditional coffin smoother.  This one cost $20 at the flea market, missing it’s wedge and a huge chip out of the over-sized throat opening.

IMG_0923 My axiom is that the worst damage to an old tool has been done by it’s last owner.  Certainly, this one had been abused by somebody.  After cleaning and honing the blade, the initial problem became apparent; the cap had never been properly fitted to the blade. Not understanding how to correct the problem, the owner had instead attacked the throat and abutments with a keyhole saw and chisel.  The resulting butchery is clear evidence of his frustration.



Unfortunately, none of these efforts improved the plane’s function.  And, given it’s damaged condition, why bother restoring?  The plane iron is marked “Moulson Brothers, Warranted Cast Steel” which indicates a high-quality English manufacture, mid-1800’s.  And the beechwood body is stamped “A J Wilkinson & Co. Boston”, a good American plane maker.  Why not make a wedge, repair the throat, sharpen the iron properly, and give it a go?  Most of the damage is superficial and a bit of epoxy and wood dust will fill them, and the cheeks aren’t split out which is a common problem with these planes.


The Moulson blade turns out to be most excellent laid steel, the hardness feels comparable to Japanese blades in the way it responds to grinding and honing.  Fitting the cap took a bit of time, and it may need some refinement.  For now, it works, and  I can plane without jamming shavings, which is better than the original owner’s experience.


Honestly, the throat opening is quite a bit wider than I intended.  In my haste to get it working, I took a big chip out of the ebony and that determined the opening.  Really doesn’t seem to matter, and I have other planes with superfine openings, so I’ll use this one for a while and let it tell me what it needs.  A small hammer, a few careful taps…


A sharp blade is far more important than a tight throat opening.  Most people who write about planes exaggerate the importance of a perfectly flat back (desirable, not essential) and the amount of crown in the edge.  Crown should be reckoned in thousandths of an inch, not fractions.  Ideally, a shaving is .002-.003″ or less in the middle, thinning out to nothing at the edges.  If the plane’s sole is dead flat, that’s about how much crown is needed, with the corners knocked back a bit more.

The singular advantage of wooden planes is that the sole can be shaped to a slight curve across it’s width, along it’s length, or both.  The crown in the edge should complement the curve of the sole, projecting slightly more in the middle and effectively cutting like a carving gouge.  With a small beechwood plane like this, the mass is concentrated in the iron toward the cutting edge and only a small part of the sole is actually in contact.  The old carpenters called this a scudding plane.  Smudges and chatter marks on that old pine disappear like spindrift, and it shines like new money.  Not bad for $20.

Posted in carpentry, furniture, traditional building, woodworking | Leave a comment

kid’s workbench

2013-04-27 13.17.08

Anyone who wants to involve children in woodworking should consider building a good sturdy low bench to accommodate their work height.  I made this workbench for the kid’s workshops I taught at the library this spring.  After cutting and fitting all the joinery, I didn’t have time to glue up properly, so instead I let the kids assemble the bench.  Then, I knocked it apart and did it again with another group.

As adults, we have tables at 28″-30″ and kitchen counters at 36″. Desks and workbenches are in that range of heights.  What do kids get?  You can’t get a full range of body motion standing on a stool, certainly not to plane boards or cut joinery.  Children need a work surface that fits their height.  This one is 24″, and seems to work fairly well with the seven-year-olds and older.  I can work at it on my knees.

Posted in architecture, carpentry, furniture, traditional building, woodworking | Leave a comment

raising day

Anna drives the first peg

Anna drives the first peg

IMG_0903Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber.  It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said it was the apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it.
So, I went on for some days cutting and hewing timber, and also studs and rafters, all with the narrow axe.  I hewed the main timbers six inches square, most of the studs on two sides only, and the rafters and floor timbers on one side, leaving the rest of the bark on, so that they were just as straight and much stronger than sawed ones.  Each stick was carefully mortised and tenoned by its stump, for I had borrowed other tools by this time.  By the middle of April, for I made no haste in my work, but rather made the most of it, my house was framed and ready for raising.
At length, in the beginning of May, with the help of some of my acquaintances, rather to improve so good an occasion for neighborliness that from necessity, I set up the frame of my house.  No man was ever more honored in the character of his raisers than I.  They are destined, I trust, to assist at the raising of loftier structures one day.
I sometimes dream of a larger and more populous house, standing in a golden age, of enduring materials…which shall consist of only one room, a vast rude substantial primitive hall, without ceiling or plastering, with bare rafters and purlins…a house whose inside is as open and manifest as a bird’s nest.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden




There’s a rather tricky moment here, halfway up; holding the frame with three lines, while one brave soul climbs up to re-set the fourth block.


Raising is the icing on the cake.  We spent a week cutting joints and fitting up, figuring out just how to get this ton of oak to stand upright without putting anybody at risk.  Four sections of scaffolding make a pretty decent tower, chained back to anchor bolts, four sets of block-and-tackle for lifting.  Everybody gets to clap on and belay, one line trailing off to the far corner of the yard, with little ones lined up like Russian dolls.




The satisfaction of a job well-done, stripping off the rigging and dismantling the scaffolding.  By the end of the day, walls are framed, and the frame is becoming house.


Posted in architecture, carpentry, traditional building | 3 Comments

kid’s workshop

This week is spring break, and I spent three days at the public library, allowing a dozen or more kids to make things using a few hand tools and scrap lumber. IMG_0839

This group of second-graders started out assembling a workbench that I had spent the weekend fitting up.  They moved on quickly to other activities like boring holes, hand-planing, and woodcarving.



We looked at building models


and assembled a truss with mortice and tenon, driving in the pegs with a big mallet.


The older kids, fourth and fifth graders, wanted to build a catapult, so I helped a bit, but mostly let them improvise. The results were a bit rough, but the kids were so proud of their handiwork that they insisted on taking the projects home.


The old standby, driving nails was popular with the boys;


while the girls seemed more adept with woodcarving.


This was a rather improvised workshop, with little planning on my part aside from building the workbench and providing some tools and materials.  The kids were scheduled in three groups of four for one hour per group.  I believe all the kids learned something, I certainly learned a lot.  Next time…we will carve spoons and have ice cream.

Posted in carpentry, education reform, furniture, unscholastic achievement | 2 Comments



“He was a left-handed man.  Other workmen might be annoyed by apprentices or ignorant boys using their sharp axes; but you didn’t do that twice with George Cook’s axe–it was too dangerous a trick.”  George Sturt, The Wheelwright’s Shop

Is there any practical reason for having a usable broadax in the 21st century?  Probably not.


This one belonged to my grandfather.  He used it to hack out cross ties for a nickel apiece during the Great Depression.


This one is double-beveled, made by Underhill in Nashua, NH, probably for a shipwright.


And this one, a cooper’s side axe for listing the edges of barrel staves.  The attitude of the eye makes it right-handed, similar to the socket of a goose-wing axe.  It is a bit heavy for one-handed use, but makes a great light hewing axe.

Posted in architecture, carpentry, traditional building | Leave a comment

honing skills

“[the blind man] said that most men were in their lives like the carpenter whose work went so slowly for the dullness of his tools that he had not time to sharpen them.” Cormac McCarthy

There are many ways to sharpen edge tools.  All of them are messy, time-consuming attempts at geometric perfection.  Two planes meeting at an almost infinitely precise arris.  How to make that happen?

Ultimately, the trick is to keep the back of the blade absolutely flat.  Perfect blade geometry requires grinding back the bevel and lapping the back.  Grind the bevel at 25 degrees on a bench grinder.  For best results, use an aluminum oxide wheel, and dress it frequently with a diamond dresser.  Lap the back with 220 silicon carbide paper on a piece of plate glass.

Use the same paper on plate glass to shape the bevel.  The bench grinder will leave a hollow grind on the bevel.  Let the bevel rest evenly, heel and toe, moving the blade side to side along the length of the paper.  Observe what is wearing away, and adjust your position and movements accordingly.  To avoid tearing the paper, draw the edge rather than pushing it, and try to develop a figure-8 pattern.  As the hollow-grind disappears, the bevel becomes a flat plane and a distinct burr or wire edge can be felt on the back.

You can continue honing on successively finer grades of abrasive paper.  A little water on the plate glass will stick the sheet and makes it easy to change grit.  Finish up by stropping with diamond paste or auto body polish on a flat board.  Clean, cheap, and good enough for most woodworkers.  I believe this method tends to round the bevel and the back slightly, sacrificing the perfect geometry but achieving a quick, sharp edge.

Waterstones are small bricks of aluminum oxide that can be quickly lapped flat and just as quickly worn hollow.  A good beginning set of stones, an 800 or 1000 grit stone, and a combination 1000/6000, will last for several years.  They require attention.  The 220 grit paper on plate glass works well to flatten waterstones, and the paper will work on the stone after it’s initial abrasion has been used up on the steel.  So, an 85¢ sheet of paper should last through an entire sharpening session.

Build a box and a support for the stones.  Keep the water clean and warm, and don’t splash it about.  The combination of aluminum oxide and iron oxide stains wood, permanently.  Spend as much time as necessary lapping the back, coloring the blade with a magic marker if you are unsure about what needs to be ground away.  Move the bevel in that gentle figure-8, always drawing the edge to avoid gouging the waterstone.  Lap the back, then the bevel, until a burr can be felt on the back, then move to the next finer stone.  A sharp edge will shave.  Be sure to wipe the blade dry and apply a coat of oil.

“…but they [craftsmen] keep stable the fabric of the world, and their prayer is the practice of their trade.”  Siriach [Ecclesiasticus; the Apocrypha] 38:34

Posted in carpentry, woodworking | 2 Comments



After the axe and adze have shaped the surface of a timber, the spear plane (yari kana) is used to achieve a smooth, slightly rippled surface, like calm water.  Reading the grain closely is essential; always following the contours, feeling the edge.  In use, the blade is drawn not crosswise or lengthwise, but quartering and slicing.  The hands are spread wide, taking full advantage of the long handle’s leverage.  Shavings come off in long, tight spirals.  With a twist of the wrist, the blade can be made to dip and rise quickly around knots, or feathered out of the cut.

Layout begins with the ink line (sumi tsubo).  A string on a reel, passing over a pot filled with fiber and ink, the end secured to a tiny awl.  Simple.  So many things can go wrong with a simple device.  Too little ink, too much ink, or just a bit too wet and it splatters.  The string fouls, the reel binds, the ink pot leaks and leaves a huge spot of ink, hands like a printer’s devil.  Pull it too tight, and that little awl comes at you like a dart.  When it does work, there’s a fine black line, perfectly straight, from end to end of the timber face and you can proceed to mortices and tenons with confidence.

Matthew Ross forged the blades, I fitted the handles.  The ink pot is carved from plum wood, reel is boxwood.  We made these tools to work with, and they work well.

Posted in architecture, carpentry, traditional building | 1 Comment