Category Archives: tools

Design aids

What’s in your Tool Kit?

Ladies Desk attributed to John and Thomas Seymour circa 1795

Ladies Desk attributed to John and Thomas Seymour circa 1795

I enjoy a trip to an art museum. It’s more than a chance to examine great furniture on display, but to see the interplay between art, architecture, and furniture.  There is a craft element of art that applies directly to furniture building – GOOD WORK IS NO ACCIDENT. Painter Robert Genn offers timeless advise to an aspiring artist about what he really needs in his tool kit. You can read the whole thing  here in his excellent art resources website The Painters Keys. I’ve included parts of it below because it applies directly to our craft. My meager thoughts are added in bold font.

“I told him he needed six items in his kit: time, space, series, media, books and desire. This is how I laid it out for him: 

Time: Set aside a time every day. It should be at least an hour, preferably a lot more. Include weekends and statutory holidays. No substitutes for just doing it. Whether it’s learning to execute solid joinery or developing your designers eye. 

Space: Find a space that is always yours–where you can set up and work in continuity. It need not be large, but it ought to be yours. Splurge and make it a secret garden, even if you have to shoehorn it between the washer and furnace.

Series: Do a series of explorations toward tangible goals–say 100 pieces of work in one direction or another. Then start another series. In woodworking your series may be dovetails, or shellac – working the series till you reach a goal of proficiency. Or for design it could be an exploration of a familiar form while experimenting with curves. 

Media: Choose a medium that intrigues you. Realize that the potential of all media is going to be greater than at first realized. Be prepared for frustration. Select a wood species like quarter sawn white oak, figured cherry,  or maple and explore it until you fully grasp it’s potential. 

Books: “How-to” and art-history books are better than ever. They are your best teachers and friends. With books, you can grow at your own speed and in your own direction. There’s never been a better time than now when it comes learning resources. Books, videos, on-line and in person workshops. Give yourself a boost (Shameless Plug).

Desire: Know that desire is more important than any other factor. Desire comes from process. Process reinforces desire and desire becomes love. You need love in your kit. Swim in the shear joy shaping wood with your hands. 

George R. Walker

1 Comment

Filed under Design Basics, tools

Rally in the Heartland

Engraving detail by Albrecht Durher, Library of Congress

We are smack in the middle of it. A rebirth of handwork fueled by a new breed of toolmakers turning out superbly crafted and functional tools.

So a few of these toolmakers put their heads together and came up with an idea. Let’s rent a big barn and invite all our toolmaking buddies and they can invite all their woodworking friends and we can all hang out, eat great food, and what else – talk tools.

You don’t want to miss it.

Handworks 2013

1 Comment

Filed under tools, Uncategorized

Designer’s Alphabet D is for ……

is for dividers, aptly called the tool of the imagination. At it’s simplest it’s a pair of sticks joined at a fulcrum, but this simple tool is one of the most profound of human inventions. Dividers give us the ability to manipulate two imaginary points in space with microscopic precision. They lie at the foundation of everything we know about the natural world. Our curious ancestors used dividers to unlock the proportions in the human form and track the stars and planets as they marched across the night sky.

Proportional study by Albrecht Durer

This ability to plot imaginary points means they have capabilities far beyond mere observation (as if that wasn’t enough). They gave the mariner the ability to navigate the oceans, the builder to design great works of architecture, and to the everyday artisan the tool to create the humble objects that are the stuff of life. Perhaps the most profound function they offer and one that our digital age has all but forgotten, is the unique ability to visualize space. In our hands they are a bridge between the physical world and that blackboard in our minds where ideas take root. As we step off spaces and curves with a pair of dividers in our hands, a picture takes shape in our designers inner eye of the hidden geometry, arcs, and circles.

Dividers are used to strike these arcs but also to unpack the proportions behind each sequence

William Buckland, the designer of Gunston Hall, home of George Mason. Note the dividers in the foreground and the shagreen skin drawing instrument case on the table. Typical of pre-industrial designers, Buckland came from an artisan background trained as a joiner.

They came in a huge variety, from instrument grade works of art wrought in semi-precious metals to hand forged tools fashioned under a smith’s hammer. The classic reference book for the collector is “Drawing Instruments:1580-1980″ by Maya Hambly. Out of print and expensive, any good library should be able to secure a copy through an inter-library loan.

Despite our advances in technology, Dividers still have a lot to offer both the artisan and designer. Someone really needs to write a book about unlocking the secrets of dividers. Oh wait… That’s what Jim Tolpin and I have been working on the last year (By Hand and Eye).

George R. Walker

Note – If you have a unique pair of dividers, snap a picture and send it to

georgewalker.design@gmail.com

I’ll tack it on this post to share with all.

Jim Galloway shared this from his collection of proportional dividers. The lower one is ex-USSR Navy, the other three are shop made. I have found these tools invaluable in photo analysis of pictures of favored antiques. For example the way to proportion the drawers and base of a four drawer chest given the height. This bit of analysis moved forward into both William and Mary, and Queen Anne style High Boys.

Also from Christopher Martyn at www.finelystrung.com

Just in case they’re of interest, here a few photographs of a tiny pair of dividers that I was given more than 20 years ago. The unusual feature is a screw-on scabbard for the tips which, of course, makes it possible to carry them around in a pocket.

Comments Off

Filed under Designer's Alphabet, tools

Inch or Metric?

Machinists are spinning in their graves at what I’m about to share and I can’t quite believe it myself. It’s hard to explain the attachment one gets to a measuring system when you’ve made a living dodging hot steel chips streaming off an engine lathe. A micrometer in my hand feels as natural as a warm coffee cup and for decades a 6” Starrett rule was never further than my shirt pocket, ready to flick a hot chip from melting into my forearm or quickly check a dimension. My mind can still rattle off fractions of an inch in thousands. Quick – what’s 3/32nds, or 7/16ths, or 63/64ths? (.093” – .437” – .984”).

For those smugly thinking I went over to the dark side and converted to the metric system, I must disappoint you also. Fact is, neither inch nor metric plays much of a role in my woodworking. I wanted to learn the language of design and looking back, my dependence on precise measurements was actually a hindrance. Some skill sets don’t translate from one endeavor to another. Skills needed for coal mining don’t apply to fly fishing. Even though I spent a lifetime building things with my hands, aided by a precision rule, it did little to help me visualize a design; in fact it got in the way.

So you are thinking Walker is off his nut advocating some leap into the unknown and  I can imagine you quietly patting your tape measure to make sure it’s still within reach. Admittedly this was a gradual shift which began way back in my machinist days. The rigors of piecework forces one to jettison any motion that eats time, so I was always looking for ways to skip measurements. As I explored traditional hand tool woodworking it seemed that many of the techniques also veered away from using numerical measurements (Perhaps for those same time wasting reasons). Why bother measuring a mortise when the dimensions are built into the chisel? The traditional tool-set eased my tight grip on my precision rule and my numbers focused thinking.

Then came the big leap when I dove into the historic design literature from our craft tradition. Everything was about proportions with only the rare reference to numerical dimensions. As I stumbled through the old drawing exercises and geometry tricks, I began to realize that this went far beyond just becoming adept at drawing and layouts. Mysteriously those old drawing exercises revealed some amazing secrets. They taught my inner eye to SEE. Encouraged, I laid aside all measuring tools except dividers and a straight edge to stretch my thinking. It was like taking a wilderness trip and hearing for the first time warblers and thrushes from every treetop. Except in this case it was all about vision, and being able to imagine clearly both in my mind and as the work came together on the bench. In a nutshell, that’s what Jim Tolpin and I have been exploring together and offering to the larger craft community through our upcoming book. “By Hand and Eye”

Simple arcs of a circle that are key to envisioning curves.

In the end I haven’t sworn off measuring like some fire and brimstone vegetarian trying to convert a world full of carnivores. Instead I find myself simply not reaching for that ruler in lieu of something much better.

George R. Walker

6 Comments

Filed under Design Basics, Design Book, proportions, tools

Jim Tolpin’s “The New Traditional Woodworker”

I don’t often read a woodworking book cover to cover. Usually it’s just one or two sections that interest me enough to add to my library. Tolpin’s new book “The New Traditional Woodworker” is an exception. Reading it felt like I was sitting down to a marvelous feast and I didn’t want to miss a bite. Half way through I had the realized Jim accomplished something very difficult to capture in print. This book is essentially an apprenticeship in hand tool woodworking. I know a bit about apprenticeships having served in an old school machinist apprenticeship 35 years ago. Like the journeymen that taught me (minus the practical jokes and abuse) Jim takes you under his wing and helps you build a succession of fundamental skills while simultaneously outfitting your workshop with a nice collection of essential workbench accessories. I still have my machinist chest packed with tools I made as an apprentice, it’s a great way to build basic skills. Each successive tool and skill raises the confidence and competence to take on richer and more challenging projects. Jim approaches skill building from three angles. The right tool set with an overview of essential hand tools and their proper use. The right mindset with solid instruction about how to make those tools work to their potential. Finally, the skill set to bring it all together at the workbench.

I have only two issues with this book. Why wasn’t it around twenty years ago when I was bushwhacking through largely uncharted hand tool territory? One other issue I had at first, but realize there may be a purpose behind it. There is no index. In this case I think Tolpin is saying, even an experienced woodworker like myself should eat the whole meal, not just hop around cherry picking a section here and there. Over the coming months I plan on building his apprentice projects. I’m sure revisiting some of the skills will benefit, not to mention finally assembling a tool set that will stay with me. Sure, a couple of sections of half inch extruded aluminum angle will get by as winding sticks. But why not treat myself to a nice hand crafted mahogany set?

If you are new to hand tool woodworking this is an excellent roadmap. Even accomplished hand tool users will find useful guidance and perhaps the inspiration to finally trick out your workshop with a set of tools any journeyman would be proud to own.

George R. Walker

5 Comments

Filed under Resources, tools

Spoiled…in a good way

Super Chute clamped to the north end of my workbench

Back in the mid 70’s just out of high school I took off for Montana on a teenage lark. My brother helped me land a job on a sprawling cattle ranch. Can’t say I was much of an asset on a working livestock operation but they did need young strong backs and I was keen to explore the Rockies. Looking back I had an incredible experience that was largely wasted on youth, but I do have memories of some amazing trout fishing. The native trout were not large, mostly frying pan size but they were plentiful. You could catch rainbows in a ditch. A small creek bubbled behind the bunkhouse and it took only a few minutes to fill a bucket with fresh trout.  

Fishing like that has a downside. It spoiled me. Those crystal clear streams and shiny dancing rainbow trout will forever haunt my memories.

Super Chute with UHMV bed for plane runway and 45 degree mitre attachment.

Recently I purchased a Super Chute from Tico Vogt at Vogt Toolworks. If you are not familiar with a shooting board it’s a classic bench accessory that can turn a hand plane into a precision trimming instrument. It is capable of much higher precision than you can achieve with power tool methods and as an added bonus allows you to form precise miters on small parts without putting digits in the vicinity of a whirling cutter. It allows you to make controlled cuts and achieve dead tight precision joinery. It’s especially helpful if you do work with small drawers or any kind of work that will be scrutinized up close. I had been using a shop made shooting board that was basically a bench hook. Not any more. It spoiled me.

The Super chute has a number of well thought out features. It fastens securely to my workbench with just a single clamp that’s positioned out of the way. The plane rides on a bed of UHMV so you hardly feel the friction of the tool, just the cutting action of the blade. It has accessories for cutting miters that attach quickly and securely. I have a feeling the north end of my bench will now have the Super Chute as a permanent fixture. I can now achieve crisp tight joints with ease. I highly recommend this tool to step up your game.

Donkey ear attachment installed on Super Chute.

A note of disclosure. I do not take tools as gifts in return for a review. I bought this tool because it looked like it could improve my work at the bench. It’s a truly impressive, well thought out machine.  Warning, once you try it you’ll be spoiled also. If you appreciate tight joinery and strive to do the best work, you should take a look at the Super Chute.

George R. Walker

4 Comments

Filed under tools

Tool Event

If you haven’t been able to break free to attend one of the Lie-Nielsen hand tool events, here’s what you’re missing out on. I spent the weekend in Cincinnati at the tool event at the Popular Woodworking headquarters. Notice the piles of chips and shavings on their nice carpeting. It’s pretty much like that at every bench. Some is from expert demonstrators and quite a bit is from attendees who were encouraged to test drive the tool of their choice. I did a little of both myself. I went down with a group of SAPFM (Society of American Furniture Makers) who demonstrated a variety of traditional techniques. I had a few antique joinery planes, a tongue and groove set and a moving fillister that I brought along. The same comment came out of the mouths of those who tried out the fillister, “Where can I get one of these?”

 I traded places and tried out Andrew Lunn’s  Eccentric Toolworks saws at his workbench. This went against my better judgment as now I have a bad case of rip saw lust. As always, I kept an ear open as Deneb from Lie-Nielsen poured out information on hand planing technique. Even though I’ve been using planes for nearly thirty years I came away with several new tricks to improve my work.

 Another reason I love these events is to talk design. Toolmakers themselves, I find eager to talk about design and I get the sense that it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of what they do. With interest I listened to John Economaki from Bridge City Tool Works talk about his design process and how he uses some cutting edge technology to go from print to prototype. He’s the first person to share something about electronic drawings that really piqued my interest. He explained that the ability to stretch and manipulate curves on a sketchup type medium allowed him to explore ideas in a way impossible with paper and pencil. That conversation spawned others about how to visualize ideas in a drawing. All, even John admitted that at some point in the process you have to hold the part in your hand to see how it feels, or in the case of a furniture part, hold a leg and look at it from several vantage points to see if you have nailed it. Even an excellent photo or film sequence no matter how crisp, will not reveal the same essense that our eye perceives in person. Make it a point to get to one of these shows if you haven’t already. It feels pretty good to make piles of chips on someone else’s carpet.

George Walker

2 Comments

Filed under Design Basics, tools

Tight joinery made simpler

Tight joinery has always been the mark of fine work, Photo by Lie-Nielsen Toolworks.

A few years ago I was teaching a class at Marc Adams and a student who shall remain nameless chided me for choosing hand tools over powered versions. He argued that power tools were more accurate. I had to scrape my jaw off the floor before replying to that non-sense. I’ll concede, my Unisaw is more accurate at crosscutting than an axe, but it’s only slightly more accurate than a good backsaw and neither power nor handsaw will produce perfect joints that don’t require a little fussing to close tight. Then as now, I’m not interested in fanning the flames of the power tool versus hand tool debate. One thing is for sure, tight joinery is one of the marks of good work regardless of how one gets there. Results are what I’m interested in, and for making fine adjustments to achieve tight joinery I rely on hand tools and especially hand planes. They offer the ability to slice off a controlled shaving. As little as a half thousands of an inch at a time if need be. The human eye can pick up a gap in a joint that’s only two or three thousands wide (a human hair is aprox four thou thick), so to achieve really tight joinery there’s no match for a well tuned plane.

My old shooting board in action mitering small parts. I'm about to trade in this old reliable Rambler for a Tico Vogt Super Chute.

I often use a shooting board to square up the ends of stock even if it’s an apparent square crosscut fresh off my Unisaw. Before cutting dovetails or tenons it helps to begin with a dead square end.  Recently Tico Vogt has been working on an improved shooting board that has my attention. Seems he has re-thought how to make the design as rock solid and smooth as possible to achieve superior results. Here’s the best part, he’s building them for sale. I look forward to adding one as an accessory to my workbench and taking my own joinery up another notch. Check it out. In interest in disclosure I have no commercial ties with Tico. I’m just excited someone is building something that allow me to focus more of my time building and less fussing and fitting to achieve tight joinery.

 George R. Walker

2 Comments

Filed under tools

Most amazing woodworking tool

I have a good friend whose has spent a lifetime collecting arrowheads. He’s got scores of display cases with wonderfully colored flint tools, and many more boxes of broken cutting tools, stone hammers, axes, and various tools for grinding corn. Here’s a nugget of wisdom. Don’t be too quick to volunteer to help an arrowhead collector move. Anyone, whose collection is primarily made of stone, makes for a lot of heavy lifting. What never ceases to amaze me is how humans were able to take the most basic simple materials and create wonderful and useful objects. This brings me to my favorite woodworking tool, the lowly dividers. What could be simpler? A pair of pointed sticks joined at a fulcrum. No wires, chips, servo motors or sensors. Yet for centuries this simple tool was fundamental to science, art, and building (including crafting furniture).

I was pretty excited when the folks from Popular Woodworking Magazine contacted me about the upcoming Woodworking in America Conference this Oct 1st – 3rd in Cincinnati Ohio. Chris Schwarz wondered if I could put together a session on using dividers in the woodshop. Shazam! That sounds like fun. I’ve got more than a few tricks up my sleeve about how to use dividers to make quick and accurate (math free) layouts at your workbench. Most exciting of all is I plan on assembling some material to help you visualize how to “think proportionally”. After all, what makes dividers really powerful is they can be used to collect data, but not the kind of data we are used to. We are used to collecting numbers with a tape or digital calipers that help us comply with a plan or specifications. Dividers help us collect and manipulate proportions. How is this door frame in proportion to the raised panel? How is the thickest part of this leg proportioned to the thinnest and to the overall height? If sharpening is the touchstone for unlocking hand tool skills, using dividers i.e. thinking proportionally is the key to design.

George R. Walker

10 Comments

Filed under Design Basics, proportions, tools

Sketch kit

Winter still grips tight, pressing on nerves stretched thin, and senses cooped up. The landscape might be snow covered but Barbie and I hop in the car to see if birds are on the move yet. A drive on Sunday only yielded a few bluebirds and a lone canvasback duck patrolling a small patch of open water. From here forward we will get out every weekend. Nothing like seeing a flock of Trumpeter Swans and hearing their music break the silence at Killbuck marsh.

 I’ve written about sketching as a way to train the eye. Artists have long used sketching as a foundation skill. Many of the natural sciences once utilized sketching as a way to improve observation skills. Astronomers were quick to realize that sketching the planets while peering through a telescope allowed them to see more detail. Ornithologists sketched birds to sharpen their focus. Even today with the advent of digital photography and high tech optics, sketching is still a proven way to energize your mind.  

  I keep a sketchbook nearby and even have a pad and paper in the glove compartment in the car. Over time I have assembled a sketch kit that I take with me when visiting a museum. Barb bought me a nice leather folder which holds the following simple drawing tools. I carry two sets of dividers. I find that often one gets set to a module of some kind and the other is handy for stepping off distances and exploring. In this case they are both small dividers but different enough in appearance to avoid confusing them. I have a small T square that’s handy because it’s short enough to use on a regular sketchpad. The narrow strip of wood is a straight edge. It’s just a piece of scrap that I gave one pass with a plane to yield a smooth clean edge. I use cheap mechanical pencils and an artists sketch pad. You might also notice the checkered strips of paper. I explained these in my first video on design. They are essentially a series of grids broken up into five parts or six. Since 1/5 or 1/6 is often used to create punctuation, I use these strips held on a bias to quickly smoke out a fifth or sixth.

 That’s about it, I keep this paired down on purpose so it’s not a chore to tote around and keep track of. Don’t underestimate it though. This can unlock doors inside your head you didn’t even know existed.

George R. Walker

2 Comments

Filed under Design Basics, tools