The Cheapskate’s Guide to Tool Procurement: Windsor Chair Edition

In our last post, we examined the tools that I’ll need to add to my chest if I ever want my Windsor dreams to come to fruition. I’m typically an adherent to the old “Buy the best tools you can afford” adage, but in this case, if I purchased the best tools available, the tally would come up somewhere between $800-1000. Technically not more than I can afford, but probably more than my marriage can withstand.

So, what to do. Well, fortunately, two of the tools on my list – the tapered reamer and the rounding plane – are easy enough to fabricate myself. Jennie Alexander published the methods for making a tapered reamer some years ago. You’ll still need a lathe and an old compass saw blade (or you can just buy a new one for 10 bucks), but that’s pretty much all it takes. Once you have your tapered reamer, you can make your rounding plane with a block of hardwood and a spare plane or spokeshave iron (I have plenty). If you’re feeling really swanky, you can use a frog from an old plane to build this awesome rounding plane.

rounding planes
Fancy-pants cocobolo-and-Stanley Bedrock rounding plane. Mine won’t look like this. Credit: Peter Galbert’s photo of Seth Weizenecker’s tool

Okay, two down, four to go. This is the part where the women and children should avert their eyes, because I’m about to mention a retail giant that I should already know to avoid. No, not Wal-Mart. Definitely not Home Depot or Lowe’s. Yeah, I’m talking about Amazon. I’m not going to include any links in the next couple of paragraphs, because frankly just admitting that I bought tools from this company is embarrassing enough. In lieu of the $51 Henry Taylor skew chisel from Lee Valley, I ended up buying a one from Hurricane Tools for $20. It seems to be an acceptable tool; the handle is ash and nicely shaped, and the steel is HSS, though it is a bit light on the thickness compared to my other turning tools – no complaints yet, but time will tell.

My other Amazon purchase, however…I’m not so happy with. I noticed a Two Cherries inshave that was listed for a reasonable price of $81 – almost half the price of the Barr scorp (you’ll notice that toolmakers seem to use the term inshave and scorp interchangeably, but I tend to refer to smaller, 0ne-handled tools as scorps and the two-handled, drawknife-like tools as inshaves). Anyway, I’ve never owned tools by Two Cherries, but I had always heard positive reviews of their carving tools, so I decided to give it a go. I only had to wait two days, and I excitedly opened up the box and was sickened to discover what Chris Schwarz derisively refers to as a “tool-shaped object”. The grinding of the bevel looked like it was done by a Cub Scout with a Dremel Tool. The handles looked diseased – poorly turned and finished with gunky stain and varnish that felt like pond scum in my hands. Worst of all, I could see immediately that the shape of the blade didn’t match the grainy stock photo and would be somewhere between difficult and impossible for working the back of the seat. The grinding can be fixed. The handles can be replaced. But there’s not a damn thing I can do about the curvature of the blade. The corners were turned to a too-sharp radius, and now I’m afraid the tool is going to be useless. I’m not going to return it, though. Nope, I’m going to fix this sucker up as best I can, grind it, hone it, maybe even replace the handles. If I find, after all my work, that it’s still unworkable for a Windsor chair seat, then I’ll sell it on eBay – with a complete and accurate description of the tool’s strengths and shortcomings – and it will return to the wild as a better and more useful tool than the one I received. If I send it back to Amazon, this bastard tool will just end up in the disgruntled hands of yet another aspiring chairmaker, and if there’s one thing the universe doesn’t need, it’s another disgruntled aspiring chairmaker.

bad inshave
Your stock photo looked so promising! How could you lie to me, Amazon? Have you no soul? Oh shit, forgot who I was talking to for a moment. Nevermind.

Anyway, let’s move past this disappointing chapter, because there’s brighter news on the horizon. The Kestrel Sitka gutter adze that I’ve coveted for years was a bit rich for my blood, but fortunately, the maker sells the blade only for the bargain price of $64! It took more than two days to arrive, but the wait was worth it. Unpackaging this tool was a completely different experience than opening the box that contained my inshave. The blade was expertly shaped. The back was buffed to gleaming perfection. The edge was razor-sharp. It was the kind of tool that you pull out of the package every few minutes for the first few days, simply to admire its integrity (or is that just me?). This is how every tool should make you feel. I immediately headed for the woods to begin searching for the perfect branch fork to fashion the handle. The pickings were a bit slim, since the forest around my house is mostly filled with live oak (perfectly strong, but the branches fork at the wrong angle) and red cedar (not strong enough). I finally found a red mulberry branch that was just right, and I have it drying in my shop at the moment.

sitka adze
Pictures don’t do it justice. Credit: Kestrel Tools

Okay, so now we’ve covered 5 of the 6 tools that I need: I’ll fabricate the tapered reamer and rounding plane myself; I’ll make the handle for my fabulous new adze iron; I made a deal with the devil for the skew chisel and inshave. The only tool left is the most expensive, and not surprisingly, the most difficult to make correctly: the travisher. So far, I’m up to $175 in tool purchases – a bargain to be sure, but I’m near the end of my rope for the next couple of months. Elia Bizzarri sells travisher blades for only $3o for folks who want to make their own…but I’ve never held, or even seen, a travisher in real life. I’m just not confident that I could make a functional tool without ever having used one. Since I can’t afford to buy one, I’m afraid that I’m going to be stuck carving the seat without it. I’ll just have to do as good a job as I can with the inshave, and finish it off with scrapers. It’s not an ideal solution, and I may find myself trying to make a travisher halfway through the build, but that’s my plan at the moment.

Finally, the last tool that I need, the shavehorse: I’ll be tackling Peter Galbert’s “Smarthead” shavehorse for that. Looks like I have my work cut out for me, and I’m not even close to starting that chair…

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