One More Tool for the Windsor: A ‘Galbert’ Travisher.

As I was carving the seat last week, it became apparent that it would be difficult to achieve the surface quality that I was after by going straight from the inshave to the scraper. I really needed to add a travisher to my arsenal. I really can’t afford to buy one, and I had been hesitant to make one. It’s a complex tool, and the resources for building one from scratch are mostly nonexistent, so I was afraid I would be unable to make a functional tool without ever having seen one in person.

Ultimately, I realized that there were few other options, so I would just have to make my own. Elia Bizzarri sells travisher blades for the very reasonable price of $30, so I ordered one from him and in a few days it was at my doorstep. I was very pleased with the quality of the blade. The steel is substantial, and it comes with the bevel very well-ground to the proper angle. It’s not honed, but I can do that myself, no problem. It even comes with the threaded inserts and machine screws necessary to attach the blade to the wood – all I had to supply was the wood (I have plenty, just ask my wife!)

I started by googling “Galbert Travisher”and clicking on “Images”. This gave me a wide range of different shots that I could base the design on. I kept the images pulled up on my phone while I worked in the shop. It was a big help to have a handy reference for just about every angle of the tool, almost as good as a measured drawing.

Next I had to choose the wood. I thought about making it in Osage-orange to give it a little bit of bling, and because it’s incredibly hard-wearing. I quickly dismissed that idea, though, because I was afraid I would mess up my first attempt, and if I was going to mess up, I wanted to do it with a wood that was easy to work. I settled on cherry instead. Cherry is quite a bit softer, so it may wear out faster, but I figure if I have to make another body, I’ll do from a harder wood when I’m confident that I know what I’m doing.

Now, on to the build. It’s best explained in pictures, so my commentary will be minimal:

1-Cherry Planed
I started with a nice piece of 8/4 quartersawn cherry. A bit thick, really. 6/4 stock would probably be fine.
2-Travisher Layout
Having no pattern, I just used the blade itself to lay out the curves.
3-Travisher Sawing
I used a jigsaw to cut out the lower half of the travisher. I left the top intact to give me something to clamp while I fine-tune bottom.
4-Travisher Fairing
I used a spokeshave to shape the sole to match the blade.
5-Travisher Curve
Pretty close fit.
7-Travisher Throat Sawing
Then I laid out the throat and used a backsaw to define the sides.
8-Travisher Helper
My shop buddy wanted to help, so I gave her a ryoba saw to cut some kerfs in the waste section.
9-Travisher Throat Paring
Then I used a wide chisel to pare the throat smooth.
11-Travisher Blade Recess
With the throat smoothed out, I cut out a recess on both sides where the blade will be seated.
12-Travisher Screw Marking
Then I marked out the screw-holes,
13-Travisher Screw Inserts
Installed the threaded inserts,
14-Travisher Blade
And screwed the blade in place. I did a bit more refinement to get a consistent reveal around the throat. Once everything looked, good, it was time to shape the body.
15-Travisher Handle Drawknife
After sawing out the top with the jigsaw, I lost my flat reference surfaces, so work proceeded with the drawknife.
16-Travisher Handle Carving
Then I faired the whole body and cut the chamfers with my sloyd knife.
17-Travisher Complete
And there it is. A finished travisher.

Once the tool body was complete, I still had to sharpen the blade. I won’t go into detail here. Claire Minihan has already done that, and better than I could. With the blade razor-stinking-sharp, I re-installed it and gave the tool a test drive. I had to do a bit more fettling with the sole to get the proper reveal (the blade must project slightly above the sole, but not too much) and curve (the sole must be angled slightly so you’re able to carve a dished profile front-to-back).

Before long, I had the tool cutting oh-so sweetly. It’s a treasure to hear the sharp ‘snick’ of a finely honed blade slicing through wood.

18-Galbert Travisher at Work
Lovely, curly, consistent shavings are the fruits of a finely tuned tool.
19-Travisher Silky Surface
And the surface quality ain’t bad, either.


Sow’s Ear, Meet Silk Purse: Sharpening a Very Bad Inshave.

In our last installment of The Very Bad Inshave Saga, I demonstrated a simple way to get a nice, consistent grind on the bevel. It took plenty of time and patience, but the results were satisfying. I’m not out of the woods, yet, though: I still have to hone the bevel, and I haven’t even mentioned the condition of the back, yet:

inshave (9)
It’s bad. It’s really bad.

Since a sharp edge is nothing more than the acute intersection of two polished surfaces, I’ve got to get the back polished before I can hope to make this tool sharp. Right now, it’s a long way from polished. I started by turning dowel about 1 1/2″ in diameter on my lathe:

inshave (10)

Then I saw a kerf down the length:

inshave (11)

And fit a quarter sheet of 180-grit sandpaper into the kerf:

inshave (12)
One tip: Sandpaper that is worn out from sanding wood can still have some life in it for abrading metal.

Then, I turn on the lathe and carefully work the entire edge, being careful not to round over the back of the edge too much. This is a more delicate process than it appears; you can do a lot of damage in a hurry, so be careful.

inshave (15)

After a couple minutes of work, I pull the inshave off for inspection:

inshave (17)
It’s getting there, but there’s still work to do. The polish has to reach right up to the edge, all the way across.

I continue with the 180-grit until I have an even shine, and then I work the blade up to 600-grit to give it a nice polish:

inshave (18)

After 600-grit, I charge the dowel itself with some green honing compound to get a mirror shine:

inshave (1)

And that’s it. The back is polished, and it only took 20 minutes or so. Now I can turn my attention to the bevel. Honing the bevel of a curved edge is always difficult and requires a fair amount of skill, but I found the shape of this inshave to be particularly hard. There is a lot of metal here – far more than a simple carving gouge – and besides that, the uneven curvature of the blade means that I’m constantly having to re-position my stones as I move along the blade. I’m not so sure I could have done this were it not for the hollow grind left by the grinding wheel.

I started with a 1000-grit slipstone, honing along the bevel, not across the bevel. I followed it up with a 4000-grit slipstone and a bit of stropping with honing compound on leather. The polish on the bevel is tiny – too small for me to photograph, unfortunately. Only the very edge needs to be polished.

inshave (4)

I was not able to get this inshave to my usual standards of hair-popping sharp, but I did get it sharp enough to easily slice through sassafras. I found that I could hog off thick chips, or very fine ones – the tool is surprisingly responsive.

inshave (5)

And it leaves a beautifully smooth surface. I think I’ll have no trouble going straight from the inshave to a scraper.

inshave (8)

So, there you go. My tool-making escapade for the Windsor chair is nearing completion. I still need to build a shave horse, but the number of excuses that I have for delaying the project are steadily dwindling.

How to Make a Handle for Your Elbow Adze

It feels a bit strange writing a “how-to” article for a task that I’ve completed exactly once in my life. I would prefer to link to an article written by an expert who’s made fifty of these things, but the internet seems curiously silent on this topic, so here we are.

An elbow adze gets its name from the shape of the handle. Unlike the more familiar western adze, with a straight handle fit into a metal socket, an elbow adze uses branch union for the handle, where the grain naturally follows an elbow shape.

Old Elbow Adze
This primitive elbow adze has a simple blade lashed onto an elbow-shaped handle.
Socket adze
The familiar Western Adze has a straight-grained handle that fits into a metal socket.

The elbow adze looks like a crude tool, but like any tool, it can be as refined as you make it to be – and even a tool that looks rustic is capable of very fine work if it’s well-made. So what’s the advantage of the elbow adze? More than anything, the advantage is the cost – forming the eye of a Western adze is no simple task, and adzes simply aren’t made on the same scale as a hammer, so it’s difficult for a manufacturer to make a half-decent tool while taking advantage of economies of scale. The plain fact is that nobody’s going to sell a million of these things. The best adzes today are still made by craftsmen, and their work doesn’t come cheap.

By removing the eye from the equation, you drastically reduce the amount of metalwork, but you complicate the handle-making process somewhat. That’s a win for us, though – we’re woodworkers; we can handle the woodwork (pun intended?)

So where to start? Well, I started at Kestrel Tool. They do sell complete adzes, but they also sell unhandled blades for a very reasonable price. You’ll also need a forked branch from a suitable hardwood. Choosing the right fork is a fun job, kind of like scouring the woods for the right crook for a spoon. The most important characteristic of the fork is the angle. You want something in the neighborhood of 60°.

kestrel adze (5)
What you need to get started: A blade and a forked stick.

One thing that was impressed upon me as I scoured the web for information was that it’s not so critical that the handle is made from a traditional “tool handle” wood like hickory, white ash, white oak, or hard maple. All of those woods will make fine adze handles, of course, but this is a tool that will be used for slicing through wood, not banging into it like a sledge hammer. You also don’t have quite the same concentrated stress points like you do where the wood fits into the metal socket of a western adze. As a result, you can easily use a wood that isn’t quite as stiff and strong without a problem.

In the Pacific Northwest, where these adzes are still used for traditional carving (think totem poles), red alder is apparently one of the preferred tool handles, primarily due to the fact that the branch unions grow naturally at the proper angle. Red alder is similar to yellow-poplar in its strength characteristics. I would still be a little wary of using yellow-poplar, but I wouldn’t hesitate to use cherry, walnut, red maple, or red oak. I ended up finding a mulberry fork that looked just right, so I sawed out the fork, shaved off the bark, and left it to dry for a month.

Satisfied that the handle was dry enough to work, last night I set about finishing up the tool. I started by planing blade end of the fork down to the pith. There was probably about a 3/4″ thickness of wood left when I stopped. You’ll want to take some care to get the “flat” perpendicular to the handle, or else your blade will sit cattywampus.

adze 012
Carefully plane the “flat” where the blade sits. This is where the rubber meets the road wood meets the steel.

When I was satisfied that the handle was ready to test, I used a tip from Kestrel Tool and fixed the blade to the handle with a couple of hose clamps. It worked like a charm and held the blade tightly in place.

One of the firm principles of making proper elbow adze: The cutting edge of the blade should be at 90° to the spot on the handle where the index finger rests. This can be tweaked in a couple of ways. The blade can be pushed backward and forward slightly along the top of the blade, or the angle of the flat can be changed slightly to to dial in just the right configuration.

adze 008
A tip from Kestrel Tool: You can fix the blade temporarily in place with a couple of hose clamps.
adze 009
The cutting edge of the blade should be perfectly square to the point on the handle where your index finger will rest.

The adze looks about right, so now it’s time to put it to the test. I pulled out a scrap of sassafras started hacking away, holding the board on the floor between my feet. It was working well and pulling out some nice chips, so I roughed out an oval and tried to see how closely to the line I could cut.

adze 010
The adze pulled out chips easily in the soft sassafras…
adze 011
…and I found that I could cut closely to a line.

Satisfied with the way the tool was working, I was almost ready to lash the blade onto the handle. Before I did that, though, I decided to add a “shelf” to the top of the handle, behind the blade. Most adze handles have this part integral to the handle, but I found it much easier to adjust the position of the blade and ensure a tight fit if I was able to plane the flat, instead of sawing and rasping.

adze 013
I didn’t have any wood that would match the mulberry, so I went with a contrasting wood instead – bloodwood.
adze 014
I simply glued it in place with some cyanoacrylate and carved it to match the contour of the handle.
adze 019
One last detail before the lashing – carve out a hollow on the underside of the flat where the twine will be wrapped.

Finally, it was time for the lashing. This was the part that had me nervous, but it turned out to be the easiest step of all. I used “artificial sinew” – basically just some nylon or polyester cord that’s heavily waxed. It’s very strong, and the wax helps keep the lashing tight as you go. I’ll describe the steps briefly, but I think you should be able to figure it out from the pictures.

adze 017
1) Start by forming a loop on the back end of the blade.
adze 020
2) Now wrap the working end around the haft and over the loop.
adze 021
3) Keep wrapping, taking care to pull the cord tightly as you go (notice that I wised up and put the blade guard on the adze).
adze 022
4) Now we’re done wrapping. The cord is tight and the loops are pressed tightly together.
adze 023
5) Slide the working end through the loop you made in Step 1.
adze 025
6) Now pull the working end under the wrapping by pulling on the standing end from the loop in Step 1.
adze 026
7) Keep pulling until the intersection is in the middle of the wrapping, then pull both the working and and the standing end in opposite directions to form an “X” under the wrapping. Now just trim the ends, and you’re done.

That’s it! The wrapping took, maybe, 5 minutes from start to finish, and that was with me stopping to take pictures every so often. If you do a good job of it, your wrapping should last for years. Time will tell if I’ve done a good job, but the blade certainly seems as tight and immovable as I could hope for.

Now, I’m one tool closer to building that Windsor chair.

adze 027
The finished adze – rustic, but refined.

Kitchen Table: Nearly Finished.

Last night I resolved to get the kitchen table out of my shop as soon as possible. I forget how unwieldy a 4′ x 4′ panel can be in a small shop like mine. Glad I don’t work with plywood in there. The last of the glue joints still needed to be leveled, and there isn’t a single surface anywhere in my shop (or home, for that matter) large enough to support a panel this size aside from the floor. So the floor is where I ended up – on my hands and knees with a jack plane and my smoother. It reminded me of the first furniture project I ever tackled – a cherry and maple coffee table. I sanded the fool out of that tabletop for hours on the floor of the side porch at my parents’ house. My knees regretted it for a week, so the second piece of furniture I built was my workbench (which now resides in my Dad’s shop).

table 001
Working on the floor. Just like old times.

This time it wasn’t so bad, though. It only took 5 minutes of work and the planing was done. If you’ve never used a well-tuned plane, it’s hard to imagine how much more efficient it is at leveling glue joints than a sander.

Next task was to lay out the circle. I didn’t have a paint can big enough so I grabbed an offcut from the scrap pile and rigged up a trammel with a nail, a pencil, and a small wedge. It took two minutes and worked perfectly, so I still feel no need to own a proper trammel.

table 006
Not every tool has to be built to last.

I cut out the circle with my jigsaw. Hope you didn’t think I was a complete Neanderthal. I have nothing against power tools – most of them have their proper place. I only get annoyed when I see power tools being inefficiently or as a substitute for basic skills. I do prefer to use hand tools when possible – they’re quieter and less dusty and they require actual exercise – so when a process can be done equally well with hand tools, that will always be my first choice. In this case, a jigsaw is the right tool for the job.

table 003
Notice the offcut is supported only by the 1/4″ glue joint at the top of the photo. That’s a good glue joint. Just sayin’.

I smoothed the edges with a spokeshave and some 180-grit sandpaper and propped it up on the legs to see how she looked. Not bad!

table 009

One of the shortcomings of the design for the base is that, unlike vertical legs, these legs will always be under tensile stress. Wood is far stronger under compression than tension. To help alleviate some of the stress, I decided it would be wise to affix the legs to the underside of the top to prevent them from bending.

I did this by boring a 1/2″ hole in the top of each leg and 3 matching holes in the underside of the top. I turned some 1/2″ dowel from Osage-orange and popped a short length into each leg. Now the base is fixed when the top is in place and can’t just keep squatting towards the floor as weight is applied.

table 007

All that’s left to do now is screw a couple of battens to the underside to hold the top flat, and put a finish on it. This grain is going to pop when I put the first coat of oil on – I can’t wait!

table 010

I’ve Got an Axe Inshave to Grind.

There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.

-John Ruskin

Okay, so we established in the previous post that my new inshave is a bit of a disaster. But I’m an optimist and remain hopeful that I can turn the depressing collection of bent steel and varnished Asian hardwood into something that actually resembles a functional tool. The work begins at the grinder. First step is to take an edge that’s wavier than the Pacific coast and make it passably flat.

I always start any major grinding work by grinding the edge to 90°. There’s a good reason for this: you want to avoid creating a sharp edge for as long as possible, so the steel doesn’t heat up so quickly and ruin the temper. It also creates a guide and makes it easy to see where you need to focus your efforts when grinding the bevel.

no 001
Tool rest omitted for clarity. Please don’t try to grind your blades without a tool rest. This isn’t like a woodworking magazine where they show a tablesaw without the guards and say “Guards removed for clarity” but you know damn well they never even put the useless things on.

You don’t need to overdo it here. Just grind the edge down until the high parts are in the same plane as the low parts.

After – not perfect, but close enough.
You can see the “flat” created along the edge. It’s thick in the middle, where most of the steel was removed, and narrow around the corners, which started out as low spots.

Next, I drove a nail into my tool rest which functions as a bastardized version of the fancy-pants grinding jig that Peter Galbert wrote about a few years ago.


A quick look at the edge shows that the nail jig is located correctly. The stone is grinding right in the middle of the bevel, which will maintain the original grinding angle.


Now that the nail jig is properly located, the painstaking work of grinding the bevel begins. There is a lot of metal to remove, and a deft touch is required to avoid bluing the steel and ruining the temper. It probably took almost an hour of grinding, checking, and grinding some more until I was finally happy the the results.

An hour later, and all is right with the world.
The grind is even and there are no screwy waves and dips in the edge.

The hardest part of the process was getting a smooth grind around the corners. The middle of the blade was no problem at all. I haven’t used this technique on a drawknife, but it was easy to tell that it would work beautifully on a straight edge.

Up next: I still need to polish the back of the blade and hone the bevel.

A Tale of Two Tools: Kestrel Adze vs. Two Cherries Inshave

I think every woodworker is probably aware of the giddy anticipation of ordering a new tool and finally having it arrive. Sometimes those tools exceed our highest expectations. Other times excitement quickly fades to disappointment as soon as the package is opened and reality interrupts. I’ve mentioned previously that I ordered an adze blade from Kestrel Tool as well as a Two Cherries inshave from Amazon for carving Windsor chair seats. I’ll discuss my impressions of each tool, since they represent opposite ends of the spectrum between elation and letdown.

Let’s start with the good. The Kestrel adze blade cost $70 shipped. I could have paid $200 for a complete tool, but I don’t mind making my own handle. For a bargain price, I got an exquisitely shaped and sharpened blade. The camber is perfect. The back is polished to a mirror-finish.

kestrel adze (2)

The bevel is ground at the correct angle. Honed razor-sharp.

kestrel adze (3)

The non-critical parts of the blade still wear the marks from the forge as a badge of honor. The blade is neatly stamped with the maker’s name, as it should be. The maker is rightfully proud of his efforts.

kestrel adze (4)

The tool even comes with a handy guide filled with information about using the tool, selecting and fitting a handle, patterns, and lots of other helpful information. I used the pattern in the book to pick out a mulberry branch that should work perfectly for the handle.

kestrel adze (5)
Aside from spoons, I don’t often get to use branches in my woodworking. This should be fun.

Alright, the fun is over. We’ve seen the good, now we’re skipping the bad and diving straight into the ugly.

Doesn’t look so bad from a distance, does it? Let’s have a closer look…

Since the blade came wrapped in oiled paper, the first and most obvious unpleasantry that I noticed upon unboxing my inshave was the handles. Now I realize that handles will be functional, but the trio of flimsy metal caps and ferrules, poorly turned wood, and carelessly applied stain and varnish doth offend both hand and eye.

I would have paid extra for them to send me the tool without these handles.

More to the heart of the matter, however, is the condition of the blade. The grinding was utterly atrocious. I make no exaggeration when I say that it was the worst condition of any woodworking blade that I’ve ever purchased new. The corners were both nearly a full 1/4″ out of level from the rest of the blade. How is it even possible to ship a tool this poorly finished in good faith?

I would say that it looks like the grinding was done by a Cub Scout with a Dremel tool, but I’m afraid it would be an insult to Cub Scouts.

And finally, the worst surprise of all. The curvature of the blade is not what I was expecting and doesn’t even match the stock photo at Amazon. I haven’t measured it precisely, but I would guess that the curve at the corner follows a 1″ radius. That’s just too dramatic a curve. The primary radius is not quite as bad, but it’s larger than I would prefer. I have never used an inshave before, all of this may be meaningless when I finally put metal to wood, but it’s clear that the shape of this inshave is very different from those used by most chairmakers.


It’s going to be a near-Herculean task to get this sucker into working shape, but I’m going to take a whack at it. I’ll post an update with the results.

So there you go. Moral of the story: save yourself some heartache and order from a reputable toolmaker. I can’t say that I’ve ever been disappointed when I’ve order a tool straight from the maker, and the Kestrel adze was no different. As far as Amazon…well, that may be a perfectly reasonable place to buy a DeWalt router (I wouldn’t know) but it ain’t the place to buy your hand tools.

Gluing Up a Panel Requires More Words Than I Realized

Previously, I wrote about the dead-simple half-lap joinery for the legs. The top is nothing more than a round panel, 48″ in diameter. Easy enough, but I have a small shop, and the workbench is only two feet wide and integral to the wall. To make things easier, I started by gluing up two 24″ wide panels, each from three individual boards. I finish-planed both halves prior to the final glue-up. That’s a lot of edge joints, but if all goes well, I’ll just have a bit of cleanup right in the middle of the panel.

Gluing up a panel is one of the most basic skills in woodworking, but it’s also one that takes a fair amount of time and frustration to master. It doesn’t help that there’s metric buttload of nonsense on this topic that for some reason gets repeated ad nauseam by people who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. I’ve fallen prey to pretty much every hare-brained theory at one point or another, so let’s get started by clearing the air:

  • You don’t need biscuits/dowels/Dominoes or any other silly crutches to make an edge joint that will outlast you.
  • It doesn’t matter how many Bessey bar clamps you own. Clamping pressure will not overcome a poorly executed joint.
  • Wide boards are not inherently prone to warping. Just make your lumber is dry and don’t do stupid things that are bound to cause problems, like leaving it out in the sun or laying on the wet grass.
  • You don’t need to alternate the direction of growth rings to prevent a wide panel from warping.
  • You don’t need to cut apart a wide boards so they can be flattened with your jointer and planer. You do need to learn how to use a hand plane.
Legend has it, the ghost of George Nakashima will butterfly your buttcheeks together while you sleep if you cut apart wide boards so they’ll fit your jointer and planer.

Okay, now that the unpleasant bits are out of the way, lets talk about what you really need to know to make a satisfying edge joint. First, forget about grain direction. I mean, not entirely. You still have to plane boards the right way. But since hand planes are still the ultimate tool for flattening and surfacing a wide board or panel, it’s trivial to turn the board around (or the tool – Western planes can be pulled quite nicely) to plane in the appropriate direction.

Just find a way to orient the boards so that the resulting panel is aesthetically pleasing. That usually means trying to match up the grain for a seamless joint. Or it may mean bookmatching consecutive boards, which creates a pleasant symmetry, but will always result in a panel with the grain going different directions (unless the grain is perfectly straight).

Now let’s discuss the tool you need to cut these joints. You need a jointer plane. Usually 22-24″ long, but most importantly with a well and truly flat sole. I struggled with a number of vintage planes over the years. At first, all I had was a Stanley No. 4 and a Craftsman No. 5. The 5 can do a short edge joint just fine, but not if the blade is cambered like it should be (if you’re using it primarily as a jack plane for rough surfacing). I was short on cash, so bit by bit I added tools to try to address this obvious shortcoming.

First I tried a cheap wooden jointer. The price was right, but the mouth was rank and the sole wasn’t flat. I inlaid a patch for the mouth and did a neat job of it, but unfortunately, I didn’t have a way to flatten the sole. Eventually I sold that plane and bought a Stanley No. 6. The 6 is one of my favorite planes. It’s always on my bench and it follows my 5 for face-planing. Unfortunately, the sole has a belly of a couple or a few thousandths (I haven’t measured it, I just know that it always planes a slightly concave surface). I finally realized my need for a real jointer and bought a Stanley No. 7. It was a beautiful plane. But it wasn’t flat. Not perfectly, anyway. So I bought another Stanley No. 7. And a Stanley No. 8. And a Millers Falls No. 22 (same size as a Stanley No. 7). All of them were lovely planes, and I spent a good bit of time fixing them up and sharpening the irons and tuning the chipbreakers. None of them were flat. And none of them could cut a seamless edge joint.

I really should have just bought a Veritas or Lie-Nielsen jointer from the beginning. No, they’re not cheap, but it would have saved me so much time and effort on all of those old planes. If there’s one thing that I learned from my experience, it’s this: You cannot cut a a perfect joint with a non-perfect plane. Yeah, you can get close, and I built a lot of furniture with joints that wouldn’t have closed without the help of clamps. They were close and I’m sure they will last, but I’m not happy about it. I was never happy about it.

Finally, I ended up with a vintage Stanley No. 7 that was precision-ground with a surface grinder. It’s as flat as any of my straightedges. I bought it from a old fellow at the Woodnet forums who goes by the handle “Tablesaw Tom”. I don’t know if he still hangs out over there – I haven’t been around there for a year or more. But his work is well-regarded, and for good reason.

The precision-ground No. 7 was a revelation. No more measuring, planing, re-measuring, re-planing, re-re-measuring, cursing under breath, re-re-planing, cursing out loud, throwing tools and clubbing baby seals to quell my frustration. A flat plane cuts a flat joint. The point is this: Buy the right damn plane from the beginning. Your jointer plane is absolutely one of the most important tools in your chest. It is more important that your smoothing plane and your dovetail saw and your marking gauge put together and multiplied by π. Please, I beseech you. Learn from my mistakes and not your own. Buy a good jointer plane.

Alright. You have a good jointer plane. It’s long. It’s flat. The iron is honed straight across What else? You need a try square. A straightedge. Some winding sticks. That should pretty much do it. You’re done when the try square, the straightedge, and the winding sticks all agree that it’s done.

A few tips on how I get to “done”:

    • I always clamp the two boards to be edge-glued together and plane them as a pair. It’s not hard to do, and it has a few benefits: The extra width makes it easier to hold the plane squarely on the joint. It also makes it easier to see when your joint is out of square. The most oft-repeated benefit is that, if your joint is not square, the errors will cancel each other out and you’ll still end up with a flat panel. I shoot for square anyway.
    • Set the plane to take a very fine shaving when dialing in a long joint. Almost like a smoothing plane. So it doesn’t take forever, I use my No. 6 to get the edge close, taking a fairly coarse shaving, then I true it with a finely set No. 7.
Finely set jointer
Plane both boards at once, folded like a book from the position that they will be glued in. The blade is set for a fine shaving to dial in a long joint.
  • I’ve read silly things about how when your jointer takes a full-width shaving along the length of your edge, that means it’s true. It’s not true. Well, your edge might be true, but the adage is not true. It’s very easy to plane a slightly convex edge without realizing it. Probably easier than planing a perfectly straight edge. So use your straightedge to see how far you are from straight, and plane the high spots. It’s often best to intentionally plane a very slight hollow, then take a couple of full-length strokes to get it straight.
Straightedge on a straight edge.
There should be no light peeking in from under your straightedge. Also, make sure your straightedge is actually straight!
  • Same thing applies to twist. You can take a full-length shaving from an edge that twists slightly from end to end. This is where your square and winding sticks come in handy. I don’t know that I’ve ever read about someone using winding sticks for edge jointing, but I’m sure I’m not the first person to do it. It’s a bit of a belt-and-suspenders approach. If both tools agree that the edge is square and free from twist, then it probably is.
Square on Edge
Check the edge for square frequently, and in several places. If your iron is just slightly misaligned with the sole, the edge will get more and more out of square with each stroke. If you’re taking more strokes in one area to remove a high spot, that’s a recipe for creating a twisted edge.
Winding sticks amplify twist
Your winding sticks amplify inaccuracies and make any twist apparent. Since they take a moment to set up, I use my square to check the edge frequently, then set up the winding sticks only when I think I have it close.

Damn, that’s a lot of words to spill and I feel like I’ve barely even scratched the surface. This opus obviously assumes that you’re already fluent with hand tool lingo and relatively experienced at hand planing. The reason I felt the need to put it into writing is because, even though I’ve been using hand planes for 8 or 9 years, it probably took 5 years before I felt like I could reliably create a good edge joint. Hopefully this message finds its way to someone who’s facing the same struggles that I did.

tl:dr? Fine, here’s a one-paragraph summary.

1) Don’t skimp on your jointer plane. Get a good one, and consider it an investment in frustration avoidance. And 2) Don’t trust. Verify. You have measuring tools. Use them to make sure that you’re planing accurately. 3) You’re done when the boards meet so seamlessly that you feel confident the joint would hold with glue alone, no clamps.

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And one more thing. I’m sure fancy bar clamps are nice to have, but I’ve never met a single panel that couldn’t be clamped with my $2 garage sale pipe clamps. Spend your money where it counts – on the plane.

Making the Tools. Part II: The Rounding Plane

This post won’t be quite as long as the last, because frankly, the best instructions available for making a simple rounding plane are already on the internet. Just head over to Tim Manney’s blog and you’ll have one up and running in an hour or two (He calls it a tenon cutter – same thing).

I couldn’t help taking a few photos, though, just to prove that his process actually works. I briefly considered using more osage-orange to make a rounding plane that matches my reamer. But this process requires accurate planing, drilling, sawing, and reaming, so I decided a milder wood was in order. I dimensioned a 12″ length of cherry to 2 1/8″ (the width of my blade) by 3″ (enough width to clamp in my vice, but otherwise arbitrary).

I bored in a 5/8″ hole (since this will be the top diameter of the leg holes in my Windsor chair seats) about 3/8″ from the edge of the blank, and used my tapered reamer to cut the taper.

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Accuracy isn’t strictly necessary, but I decided to shoot for a perfectly vertical mortise as practice for actual chairmaking.
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It helps to have a skillful apprentice or two.
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The mortise turned out smoother than I expected!
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I used a flat-bladed plane to dial in the top surface until I had an even opening peaking through. Then I marked it out with a square and cut the throat about 1/4″ wide with a knife.
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I sharpened a spare spokeshave iron and clamped it down with a large wood screw and a washer. I planed the top down little-by-little and re-tested several times until I was able to pull a consistent, contruction-paper-thick shaving from turned beech. This sucker was dialed in and working beautifully.
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The tenon fit snugly in a sassafras mortise above…
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…And below.

Last step: Treat your apprentices to a walk in the woods and a Thermos full of hot chocolate.

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Making the Tools. Part I: The Tapered Reamer

Previously, I linked to an article by Jennie Alexander about making a tapered reamer using just a piece of dry hardwood and a compass saw blade. The tools described in that article are a bit rough, but apparently work just fine.

Other chairmakers have taken that basic concept and elevated it to a new level. Tim Manney probably makes the best tapered reamers available that include several refinements beyond the original design. First, the top of the reamer is gently tapered to a point to aid in sighting down the reamer in use; the upper portion is turned to a perfect cylinder to allow it to be used as a reference surface for accurate measurement; finally, the tool includes a set screw to allow for a fine adjustment of the blade projection. I chose to copy this more refined design for my own tapered reamer.

I started by picking up a $10 compass saw from Lowe’s. I also picked out a nice piece of osage-orange. It probably doesn’t make too much difference what kind of hardwood you use, as long as it’s straight-grained and not too soft. It doesn’t get much harder than osage, and it certainly is eye-catching!

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The raw materials: a compass saw blade and osage-orange.
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The first step is to grind the teeth off the saw blade. Yes, in Alexander’s article they leave the teeth on, but all of the top chairmakers these days seem to use un-toothed reamers, and I’m not interested in taking shortcuts. A wide, shop-made tool rest was a huge help in doing this accurately.
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After grinding the teeth off completely, I measured the blade with a protractor and found that it tapered at 5° rather than the desired 6°. This may seem like a small detail, but I decided to go ahead and grind the blade down to the right angle.
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With the blade ground properly, I used a cold chisel on my “anvil” (a short section of railroad track) to score it and snap it to length. The narrow end is about 3/8″ wide.
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I filed the faces completely smooth with a long single-cut bastard file, then I did the same to the edges. You can see on the right edge a dimple from where the teeth were over-set in the factory. I would have preferred a vintage blade, which likely wouldn’t have had this problem, but the modern blade was quicker to find.
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Once I finally had a properly shaped blade, it was time to start on the wooden parts. I didn’t completely remove the dimples from oversetting, because I figure the opposite side of the blade will do the work if I ever ream this deeply!
Tapered Reamer Sketchup
It may seem like overkill, but I created a Sketchup drawing of the wooden body using photos as a reference. Armed with this, I cut out a 1 3/8″ square blank, 16″ long, and headed for the lathe.
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I started by turning a cylinder a bit proud of 1 1/4″. Next I used a parting tool to take the end of the reamer down to 3/8″. I marked out a length of 8 3/8″ from the end, then carefully turned the taper. As I closed in on the final sizing, I checked frequently by sighting down the blank with my blade. I use my toolrest as a guide to ensure that the taper is straight.
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I was able to get it pretty straight with the skew chisel, but backlighting with a straightedge revealed that it was imperfect.
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To get a perfectly straight edge, I use a clever trick that I can’t even remember where I picked up: I use a long, single-cut bastard file and hold it firmly against the wood as the lathe is spinning. I would have taken a picture of this, but unfortunately this is a two-handed technique! The tail of the file goes towards the tailstock, and you just keep it rubbing until you get a consistent polish from the file, then it’s done! You can see it this picture that I have a bit more work to do: there are still some chatter marks visible from the skew work.
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After turning the taper and the cylinder to perfection, the last bit of turning is to do the rounded taper at the top of the reamer. Use the skew to cut a couple of notches that define the three parts. Having not used a skew chisel in 8 years, I was pleased to be able to achieve a nicely polished surface with it. The rest of the reamer is finished straight off the file, which also leaves a pleasant surface. Before you part off the ends, use the indexing head of your lathe to mark out the saw cuts on opposite sides of your reamer, and also mark out where the handle is going to go. (I forgot to do this, and it made the layout that much harder!)
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If it seems like near-perfection is required in every step of this tool, that’s because it is! I used a Ryoba and slowly, carefully cut the slot for the blade. I followed the Ryoba with a panel saw to widen the kerf, and finished up the slot with some 180-grit sandpaper on a card scraper.
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One step I didn’t photograph: chiseling out 1/4″ space for the chips to collect on the clockwise side of your blade. Next, bore a 5/8″ hole for the handle (best to bore from both sides and meet in the middle) and turn a snugly-fitting handle to match.
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Finally, I added a setscrew to fine-tune the depth of the blade. I carved the pocket with a gouge and a chisel and drilled the hole, aiming for the center of the top of the blade. The screw is just a machine screw.
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It took a bit of fiddling with the setscrew, but the finished reamer looks pretty slick and created a lovely taper in this scrap of sassafras.

Up next: using the tapered reamer to make your rounding plane.

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…