Category Archives: tools

Design aids

Might be your lucky day


On the fence about attending Handworks next week? Allow me to nudge you past the tipping point. Many of the exhibitors are contributing tools for prizes that are handed out throughout the day on Friday and Saturday. I’ve been busy this Spring with Jim Tolpin writing a design workbook for Lost Art Press, but  I still managed to steal away and work up this set of mahogany bench tools for some lucky woodworker. Hope to see you there.

George R. Walker

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Tools that inspire

Note how the mechanism clamps to the beam via a wear plate

Note how the mechanism clamps to the beam via a wear plate

I’m a tool user – not a tool collector. However, I do have a soft spot for antique dividers and drawing tools. When some old buzzard moans,  ” They don’t make em like they used to”  it’s hard to find a better example than vintage drafting tools. Today I picked up these late 19th century German Silver trammel points. The detail is amazing.  Like many of these tools the craft of making them grew out of instrument making, so there’s a lot of crossover with watchmaking, surveyor, and navigation tools. Note how they clamp on the beam and DSCN3693have a wear plate to grip without marring the wood. I also like the design in the turnings. I can almost imagine that pattern in a table leg. Anyone have experience polishing German Silver?


George R. Walker


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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

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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

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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

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

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.

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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


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


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