Sterling Tool Works makes one tool (so far), but they make it well. The Saddle-Tail (S-T) can be used as a dovetail marker or a saddle square and is made in America from machined brass and tool steel. Before I get too far along, let me say I love dovetail markers. They are fast, accurate, and repeatable and after using one I think you’ll be very reluctant to go back to squares and adjustable bevels. Now lets talk details.
For years I’ve been using the Lie-Nielsen (LN) dovetail marker and am relatively pleased with it. It’s made from brass and cocobolo, comes with a 1:7 slope and 1:6 slope and costs a reasonable $35. The S-T from Sterling Tool Works is different. Instead of two slope options like the LN guide, the S-T has one sloped face and one square face, thus making it both a saddle square and dovetail marker. In addition to having a saddle square, the claim is that with one sloped face you won’t accidentally flip the tool in use and mark two different slopes on the same board. Personally, I could go either way on this point. I like having more than one slope option and with the LN guide you get two options in one tool. You can get up to three slopes from Sterling but you have to purchase multiple tools. This would be my only quibble, it’s a matter of personal preference and it’s not really against the tool itself. If Sterling ever offers a dual-sloped version (and I think they should) there would be no debate on who owns the dovetail marker market… though I suppose a dual-sloped guide could no longer be called a “Saddle-Tail”, oh well.
Now lets get into the things I like… and there is a surprising amount for such a small tool. First off, the manufacturing quality is top notch. The fit is outstanding and the finger recess machined in the brass is the first indication of the thought that went into the tool. There is also a relief notch in the corner to allow a snug fit even on boards with rough edges.
Next, the heft of the tool is substantial. Instead of aluminum or wood, the body is brass which adds appreciable weight especially when combined with the thickness of both the brass and steel. This thickness not only adds weight, but gives the user more surface area to register a marking knife against (though you’ll probably use a pencil most often with this tool).
Now for my favorite feature, the size. After all a dovetail marker is little help if it doesn’t mark full lines. This is my only complaint about the LN guide. It’s a beautiful tool and works well, but any stock over 3/4″ thick doesn’t get a full line marked across it. 3/4″ is plenty for a single drawer side, but most people cut both drawer sides at the same time, doubling the thickness of the cut. As a result, drawer sides over 3/8″ thick can not be marked in pairs without going back and extending the line with a standard square. Dovetailed carcasses are also over 3/4″ in many cases so the additional length of the S-T, as I said before, is my favorite feature. How much reach do you actually get? The brass body extends 1-5/8″ and the steel extends 1-1/4″.
The length is also necessary for making the tool a useful saddle square. My favorite saddle square is from Veritas. It’s inexpensive, large, and comfortable. The S-T, however, is almost the same size and makes owning the Veritas version unnecessary.
Finally, the slopes being offered by Sterling are somewhat unique in themselves. When cutting dovetails in hardwood today, a slope of 1:7 or 1:8 is suggested, softwoods use a steeper slope at 1:6. However, pictures and existing pieces of older furniture suggest steeper slopes were often used. Sterling decided to offer slopes at 1:4, 1:6, and 1:8. As you can see in the first picture, between my LN and two Saddle-Tail guides I can choose from 1:4, 1:6, 1:7, or 1:8 so I’ve got plenty of options.
In closing I’ll say this, the Saddle-Tail guide from Sterling Tool Works is an outstanding tool I highly recommend and one you will be proud to own. However, premium tools are never cheap and the S-T guides run a hefty $75 a piece. If you can’t swing that for a layout tool, the LN guide is well worth the $35 (though be aware of its length limitations as I mentioned above) as is the Precision Dovetail Template from Wood Joy. And if you’re really pinching pennies you can get the aluminum guides from Veritas (just don’t buy this version, they’re useless in my opinion).
If only cutting dovetails were as easy as laying them out. -WMT
Update: click here.
One thing I struggled with when learning to sharpen hand tools was creating the proper geometry. Whether I was flattening a chisel back or cambering a plane iron, the results were always unpredictable. Eventually I caught onto the fact that my stones were not as flat as I thought they were… but why not? I was flattening them with a flattening stone after all, shouldn’t they be flat? Isn’t that why it’s called a “flattening” stone?
My problem was the flattening stone itself was not flat. This created non-flat waterstones which resulted if poor tool geometry. I am making the distinction about the geometry because I think it’s important. I was getting a perfectly acceptable polish on the tool, but not always where I was expecting it. Poor honing (or polishing) requires a finer sharpening media, inaccurate or inconsistent honing requires a flatter sharpening media.
So down to business. I strongly recommend avoiding the Norton Flattening Stone. It’s inexpensive and might work at first (though don’t count on it), but it quickly goes out of flat and will do more harm than good. “But can’t you just re-flatten the flattening stone?” you might ask… sure, if you want to burn through a lot of sandpaper on a regular basis, waste time, and always wonder if it’s time to re-flatten the flattening stone. I’ve also heard other woodworkers and even a student of mine complain about this product, so save yourself the hassle and try one of the alternative methods I talk about below.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not bashing Norton. I use their waterstones and use several other products they manufacture. This stone is just not one of them. So if you’re struggling with something as simple as lapping a chisel, your stones may not be flat. Here are some things I would suggest you try:
-Lap your stones on sandpaper laid over a flat surface such as granite. This is not my favorite, it’s expensive and messy, but in a pinch it works well.
-Buy a reliable lapping plate. There are several and the are pricey. I own the DMT Dia-Flat Lapping Plate and it can cost up to $195. Shapton also makes a lapping plate that runs around $400. Others use course diamond stones to lap their waterstones. As long as the lapping stone stays flat it should work.
-Use stones to flatten stones. I know a few people who do this (though I’ve never tried it) and they have no complaints. If you’re on a budget, give this a shot… it’s essentially free. The typical process would be to buy a combination stone, such as a 1000/4000 grit stone, buy a purely course (1000 grit) stone, and a purely fine (8000+ grit) stone. Use the course side of the combination stone to flatten the purely course stone. Then use that stone to flatten the 4000 grit side of the combination stone, then use the 4000 grit stone to flatten the 8000 grit stone.
-I know some people lap on a cinder block… that’s actually not a terrible idea except you can’t rinse it clean very easily and I would think it could be ground hollow, especially with course stones, fairly quickly. I would avoid this method personally, but I can’t say it won’t work for you, at least temporarily.
A few more tips for flattening your waterstones: -Rinse your lapping plate between grits to avoid embedding courser grit on finer stones. -Chamfer the corners of your stones. If you leave them sharp they will eventually chip out. This can be done right on the lapping stone. If you’re using the stones to flatten each other, you can’t do this so chamfer the stones on something else like a cinder block… or hey, go buy the inexpensive Norton flattening stone and use it solely to chamfer your stone’s corners… at least that’s one thing it would be useful for.
Keep it sharp. -WMT
Many have asked what Winding Sticks are, how they’re used, and why we are making them. In short, winding sticks locate and exaggerate twist in a board so a woodworker can plane it flat. Hand planes alone do a great job of automatically (with proper technique) flattening a board in its width and (within reason) its length. Twist, however, typically requires a little more feedback, especially on long boards. That’s where winding sticks come in. Place the sticks at either end of a board (inlay facing in on both sticks), then sight over the top of one stick and compare the inlay on the other. If the sticks are parallel the inlay will be evenly exposed at both ends. If more inlay is visible on one side than the other, the sticks are not parallel and twist is present. To demonstrate, here’s a typical example of how I use winding sticks and what beneficial features we’ve incorporated into the sticks we sell.
The board I am flattening is an air-dried piece of cherry, 4′ long and a little over 6″ wide. It came with excessive twist (more than I would expect from a decent lumber dealer), but this board was free from a friend who had a tree come down and milled it into boards. Here’s what I was dealing with:
Notice on that last picture that sticks are showing the near-left-to-far-right corners of the board are higher than the near-right-to-far-left corners. This tells me where to focus my planing efforts. Another point to make is winding sticks not only locate the twist, they exaggerate it. How much? That depends on the length of your sticks and the width of your board. These sticks are 24″ long and the board is about 6″ wide, so the sticks are exaggerating the twist by roughly 4x in this case. If I think there’s 1/2″ height change in the sticks over their 24″ length, I would expect there to be about 1/8″ twist in the actual board across its width. We are offering three standard sizes, 18″, 24″, and 30″. I tend to like sticks that are 2x-4x the width of board I’m working. Less than 2x works (and for wide surfaces like a table you may not have a choice, who really owns 8′ long sticks after all?) you just won’t get the exaggeration effect that makes spotting twist easier. Too much length is usually not a problem (though excessive exaggeration of twist can leave you chasing your tail), but storing and maintaining sticks much over 30″ can be a hassle in itself. So when choosing sticks, think about the typical width of board you work on, multiply by 2x-4x and see where you land. We also offer a couple wood options. This is purely a decision based on looks and what you think will be easier to see in your shop: light wood with dark inlay or dark wood with light inlay.
Moving on, I now begin the planing process. This “process” is obviously a huge area of confusion (especially beginners who think they know nothing) and a huge area of debate (especially for seasoned workers who think they know everything).
Since this post is not about how to plane, I’ll just say you should start with a jack, taking heavy shavings (maybe 0.010″+). Plane until all the rough, off-the-mill marks are gone. Do your best to get things as flat and twist-free as possible before switching tools. The biggest mistake for beginners is switching tools too early. You may feel like you’re making progress faster because you moved to the next tool in the series, but if you weren’t done with the jack, you just added a lot of time to your jointer. When you are done with the jack, move to the jointer for final flattening, checking your progress periodically with your straight-edge and winding sticks. Finish off with a few passes from a smoother to leave a clean surface and you’re done. The video below is a rushed, but entertaining demonstration of the procedure.
So how do you know when your board is truly done? I check for three things. Is the board flat over its length? Is it flat across its width (checking several locations)? Is the twist removed (proven by parallel winding sticks)? When all three of those criteria are met, you have a flat board.
So there you have it, that face is now flat and work can begin on the opposite face and edges. If winding sticks are new to you I hope their value is evident when flattening boards by hand. They can be made as simply or extravagant as you like and any two parallel sticks will do the job. They can be metal, wood, or something else entirely. They can also make a great project for beginners. We sell them because not everyone has the time or interest in making tools, they’d prefer to make furniture with their time. Others have simply never heard of winding sticks before, so whether we’re selling you a pair or simply exposing you to their existence, we hope more woodworkers will add them to their collection.
Have a great day (preferably in your shop) -WMT
Note: depending when you’re reading this, our winding sticks may not be listed on the website for sale. We are shooting to have the website updated between Feb-Mar of 2014. Until then, you can have your name put on the waiting list by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
I’ve been asked a few times about what tools are required to get started in woodworking… specifically working wood by hand. Chris Schwarz compiled an excellent list of necessary hand tools for his book The Anarchist’s Tool Chest. To see that list, check here. And while that is an excellent list, it assumes you are not using any power tools and doesn’t really give any ranking in terms of what to buy first and what can come a little later. The following is my opinion on what to buy and when to buy it (the tools I mention first are the ones I would buy first), especially if you’re going to be using the hybrid approach of some work done by hand, some with the assistance of electricity.
A Bench – Sounds obvious, but without something to hold wood flat, on its edge, and vertically, you won’t get very far.
Bench Planes – Get three: a jack, jointer, and smoother. Ideally you will have all three, but the jack will be used a lot and a vintage one will do fine (low cost) as it is primarily a roughing tool. This is also the easiest plane to learn on as many of its properties (mouth opening, sole flatness, etc) are not critical for it to function properly. The jointer is next and will leave your surfaces flat… but powered jointers and planers can replace this if you so choose (though not in my shop). Finally, a smoother is another work-horse in my shop, but the reality is that once your surface is flat, you can (and a lot of people do) use sandpaper to get the final finish. Again, a smoother is better for a lot of reasons, but if money is tight it can be purchased last (and if you’re able, buy a premium model). Purchasing this last also allows you to get comfortable with hand planes before getting into the most temperamental of all models. A smoother must have a razor sharp blade and be tuned to perfection if you want the results we all dream about in our sleep (we do all dream about hand planes, yes?). And on a similar note, a card scraper is critical in my shop while others go their whole careers never even seeing one and get by with sandpaper. Oh, and you’ll need a way to sharpen these tools (and a grinder isn’t it).
Chisels – 1/8″, 1/4″, 1/2″, and 3/4″. A bit bigger is nice as is a skewed pair or fishtail chisel, but not essential. Mortise chisels are also nice, but if you drill the waste out or use a mortising machine, they aren’t going to see any use.
Saws – Start with a dovetail saw, next I’d get a carcass (or crosscut) saw. That will be all many woodworkers need. Full sized hand saws, tenon saws, or bow saws are commonly replaced by table saws and bandsaws today, but a backsaw filed rip and another crosscut are worth their weight in gold.
Specialty Planes – A spokeshave, block plane, and large router plane will see a lot of use, even in a power tool shop. I’m not going to get into the uses of these tools, the router plane especially may seem foreign to some, but they are critical in my shop. I’m not recommending shoulder, rabbet, or plow planes because, while they are essential in a hand tool shop, many will be just fine using a table saw or router for these operations so I wouldn’t rate these as essential (unless you’re not using any power tools).
Drills – I can’t say these are essential, most people have a cordless drill and/or drill press, but for the cost I find an “egg beater” drill and hand brace to be very useful and more responsive for fine woodworking. For more info on drills, see here.
And finally, the usual mix of hammers, dividers, marking gauges, a tape measure, clamps, etc. are all necessary in any shop. Schwarz’s list does a good job outlining those tools, plus some useful shop accessories like bench hooks and shooting boards, but above are the critical tools I believe everyone in every shop will use, regardless of your woodworking preferences.
Hopefully that helps. It can be overwhelming to see a complete hand tool shop, the cost and time associated with purchasing and learning to use those tools is substantial. If you start with what I recommend above, you can slowly add to it as your skills and preferences take over. Good luck, get working.
The biggest issue when getting started in working wood with hand tools is wondering, “what tools do I need?” I remember thinking I needed all bench planes #1 – #8 and every saw or chisel size sold by a given manufacturer. After all, if I didn’t need all the sizes they wouldn’t be offering them, right?
Well, as you spend some time in the shop and read a few books you will quickly learn that is very wrong. And while there is a lot of information out there on which planes or saws you should get, I’ve seen little to no words of wisdom around what drills are useful and why. So here is what I’ve found most useful:
First, no single drill will handle all your hole-boring needs (or to some, your boring hole needs, but I digress). The diameter of the hole you want to drill determines how much torque your drill will need to provide. A traditional hand drill (or “egg-beater drill” as they’re often called) can only handle small holes, up to about a 1/4″ in diameter. They are fantastic tools that can be easily found on the vintage market at a very affordable price. Take the time to get a decent one that is complete and in good shape and/or fix it up yourself (see my restoration advice here). I own two of these drills, one smaller than the other. The larger (a Millers Falls #2) is my workhorse. It does the bulk of the drilling in my shop and if I had to live with the absolute minimum number of tools, this would be one of the two drills I would own (I actually own five drills total). My second hand drill is smaller (a Millers Falls #5a) and is nice to have on hand for very delicate work or if I’m alternating between different drill bit sizes, I can dedicate each of my drills to a different bit size rather than switching bits back and forth between the same drill. I also find these drills easier to keep vertical compared to a cordless drill which is always trying to tip over due to the offset handle and battery weight.
When I need to drill small holes horizontally, I prefer a breast drill. The name is derived from how the tool is used; the pad at the top is pressed under your… well… breast and your hands align and crank the drill. I own a two-speed version (a Stanley 905) that allows me to choose between faster drilling or more torque, just like with a battery powered drill. I find this drill easier to support, keep flat, and crank when drilling horizontally, but as this is not something most woodworkers do very often I wouldn’t go nuts trying to track one down.
Now for the larger holes. From about 1/4″ – 1″ diameter holes, hand braces are awesome and readily available… the bits (called auger bits), on the other hand, can be a little tough to find in a complete set (sets typically range from 1/4″ – 1″ sizes in 1/16″ increments).
The term “brace” is based on the older wooden versions of this drill which were reinforced with brass plates, or braces, to avoid cracking the wooden frame during use. Hand braces have two major features that differentiate one from another. First is the sweep size. A 10″ brace, for instance, is one which has a handle offset 5″ from the chuck, thus creating a 10″ diameter circle you must sweep the brace around to turn the bit. The larger the sweep distance, the more torque you can generate (nice for your largest drilling needs), where smaller sweep distances allow for faster drilling (preferable for smaller bits). The second feature to look for in a brace is ratcheting chucks vs solid chucks. Ratchets allow for reversing the direction of rotation when an obstruction prevents the brace from making a complete circle. This sounds like a big advantage and indeed if you find yourself in a situation where you can’t make a full sweep of the brace you will want a ratcheting chuck. However, this shouldn’t be a regular occurrence and the ratcheting mechanism can add a sloppy feel to the drill (depending who made the tool and how well it’s been cared for). Thus, I have two braces. The first is an original (before Stanley bought them out) North Brothers Yankee 2101A brace with a ratcheting chuck and 12″ sweep. This would be the second of my two essential drills and can handle any large-hole-drilling need I may have. However, when drilling a smaller hole (maybe 5/8″ or less) and assuming there is nothing in my way, I will often reach for my Millers Falls brace without a ratcheting head. These tools are so cheap it’s worth having a couple around, especially if you vary the features they bring to your shop. These tools work well drilling vertically or horizontally, but the way I use them differs based on the situation.
A few tips on the bits themselves. For hand drills, you can use the vintage bits that accompany some drills, but I just use brad point bits. They are just easier to find and cut cleaner. For the auger bits, two common styles exist: Jennings and Irwin. I can’t say I prefer one over the other, but if they get dull they can be tuned up with an auger bit file (check Lie-Nielsen’s website to buy one, they are only $8.50). Finally, if your auger bits are blowing out the back of your board, stop drilling as soon as the lead screw pokes through the back. Then flip the board over, line the bit up with hole, and finish drilling from the backside.
Have a great day, -WMT
For any beginners out there, or just someone looking for a simple-to-make project, boxes are a good and inexpensive option. I recently made a batch of display boxes that required me to come up with something that looked nice, but didn’t take a long time to make. There are a few tricks-of-the-trade I used that others may benefit from, so here goes…
The sides of the box are naturally all going to be the same height and thickness, but I also made the top’s length, width, and thickness match the bottom (though these dimensions are different from the side’s). So, start by flattening and bringing your wood to thickness in your preferred manner, for most that will be using a powered planer. Then rip your boards to width on the table saw. Pretty straight forward, but here is where some of the tips start to come into play:
Clean up the top edge of all the sides, not the bottom edge, that will get cleaned up at the end. This will be your reference edge for all future cuts and will not be easy to smooth out once the box is assembled.
The joinery for the box will be glued mitered edges. This allows through-grooves to be cut in sides to house the top and bottom panels. It also looks nice. Yes other joints work well and can even be stronger, but they are more complicated and this is meant to be simple and mass-producible. So with that in mind, use a mitered cross-cut sled to cut one edge at a 45 degree angle, then flip the board and reference it against a hard-stop. This ensures the box sides are the same length. If your sides are slightly different lengths OR if your angle is not exactly 45 degrees, your joints will not be tight in the end. Make sure to get this right, especially if you’re making a large run of these boxes. After the board is mitered into the box-wall components, label them with some form of mark on the outside face, towards the top edge (your reference edge).
Now for the grooves which I do after cutting the miters. If the grooves are cut first and then you cross-cut the miters, you risk small blow-out as the blade crosses the grooves. A minor detail, but it’s simple enough to groove after mitering, so I do. Two things to be aware of here: first, both grooves are cut with the top edge registering against the fence. This ensures the grooves will be parallel to each other, even if the bottom edge of the board is slightly off. It also ensures your top edge will align nicely when the box is assembled which ensures a gap-free top panel and because we already cleaned up this edge, you won’t have much to do here after glue-up. Second, the groove cut in the side for the lid is the same as the groove cut in the lid (the bottom doesn’t get a groove). You don’t have to do it this way, but it’s a lot faster than cutting an arbitrary groove in the box side, then moving the fence and trying to dial in a different groove for the top panel. The pictures should help this make sense. The bottom groove is wider because it has to house the entire bottom panel. I used a stacked dado set for this, but didn’t have it installed when I took the picture (sorry).
And with that, you’re just about there. The top and bottom panels should fit nicely in their grooves, tight enough that there isn’t rattling, but loose enough that they can float freely without binding to allow for expansion. Dry-fit your box, see how it looks, and when the joints look tight, glue it up. I use packaging tape stretched across the miters. It pulls the joint tight, it’s cheap, and it works. After the glue dries, check the bottom edges. They probably don’t align perfectly and that’s okay. We deliberately did all our referencing off the top edge and ignored the bottom edge error until now. You can use a block plane or belt sander to flush up the bottom edges and make a flat-sitting box.
Finally, sand the box and cut off the lid, either by hand, on a band saw, or a table saw. You’ll have a little glue squeeze-out on the inner corners to remove, then you’re about done. All you have to decide is how to attach the lid. I like a press-fit liner, but hinges will also work. If you do make a liner, it should match the box walls in grain-orientation and be mitered in the corners, held in by friction alone. Gluing the liner in isn’t a terrible idea, but it’s nice if the liner can be removed if it gets damaged or if you want to change the configuration of the inside by adding divider walls, etc.
To spice it up a bit, you can add mouldings, glue in keys across the mitered joint for added strength, or look into other methods for wrapping the grain pattern completely around the box without interruption, but again, those are a bit more advanced and this simple box is a good place to start.
Tips and Troubleshooting: -reference all joinery off the top edge, clean up the bottom after glue-up. -top panel groove should be identical to the groove in the side wall that houses the top panel. -top and bottom panels are identical except for groove added to the top panel. -pick a good proportion for you box, mine was around 6″ long x 4″ wide x 3″ tall. An awkward proportioned box will never look good. -miters don’t pull tight? check the following: 1) are my miters at 45 degrees exactly? 2) are my opposing side walls exactly the same length? 3) are my top/bottom panels too wide or long, preventing the corner joint from closing completely? 4) is there anything (wood chip, etc) stuck in my groove, preventing the top/bottom panel from seating properly?
Enjoy and have a great day. -WMT
One of the best parts about attending Handworks last week was the opportunity to try various brands of similar tools or variation of the same tool by the same maker. Here are my thoughts:
Dovetail Saws: While there weren’t many individual premium saw makers at the show (Bad Axe, Wenzloff, etc) the bigger companies like Lie-Nielsen and Veritas were there, as was Gramercy. Veritas saws don’t do it for me, period. I’m not a fan of the black backs or brushed saw plates (but you can’t argue with their price-point if you’re on a budget). As for Gramercy, their teeth are too fine for my liking when it comes to a dovetail saw and the handles feel a bit thin for me, but that’s obviously going to vary person to person, hand to hand.
What I really want to talk about is the wide variety Lie-Nielsen now offers. When I bought my dovetail saw from LN I only had one choice to make, 15ppi or progressive pitch teeth (I chose progressive). A few years later, the 9″ saw I have is discontinued as they are all 10, both dovetail and carcass. This is a definite improvement. When you consider most people only use 7″-8″ of their 9″ plate (if you’re good at sawing, some only use 3″-4″) adding the extra 1″ is around a 13% increase in your efficiency. The saw does not feel unbalanced in the least, in fact I felt it balanced the saw slightly better than the 9″ version. About the only thing going for my 9″ at this point is that it’s now a collectors item (if someone wants to offer me $500 it’s theirs).
Anyway, beyond the increased length, LN also offers a thin plate version (0.015″ thick vs 0.020″) as well as tapered blades. I’d not had the opportunity to try any of these until last week and the differences are noticeable. After playing with all the variations, two stand out to me as my favorites: The progressive pitch and the thin plate, no taper for either. The taper, in general, I do not care for on backsaws. I understand why it’s there, but it’s a preference thing and I prefer a non-tapered blade. The thin plate cuts faster than the standard saw because it’s removing less material, and it cuts very smoothly at 15ppi. The progressive pitch also cuts smoothly (with fine teeth getting the cut started) but also quickly (with the aggressive teeth at the heel of the saw). And again, thanks to the 10″ plate, they both cut faster than the saw I use today. I still do not care for the standard plate at 15ppi. It’s fine teeth cut smoothly, but without the thinner plate it’s a bit slow. How should you choose? If you’re new to sawing go for the progressive pitch, the blade is less kink-prone. If you like super-fine pins, get the thin plate.
Hand Stitched Rasps: Most woodworkers are aware of the French rasp manufacturer, Auriou (pronounced are-you). These are most readily available through Lie-Nielsen and come fitted with a LN maple handle. More recently, Tools for Working Wood started carrying their own hand stitched rasps under their Gramercy label. These are made in Pakistan, handles made in USA. I tried the Gramercy rasps at Handworks and noticed a couple of things I thought were worth mentioning. First, they are nice tools and could be a welcome addition to any shop. However, when compared to Auriou, I felt that the Gramercy handles were too small (and I don’t have particularly large hands either). A woman or younger woodworker might prefer these handles, but I immediately felt like the handle needed replacing. As far as the cutting is concerned, these bite the wood more than I’m used to after using my Auriou rasps for a few years. The teeth seem taller, more pointed than the Auriou rasps and made starting the cut a little more difficult. Once moving, however, they removed material in a hurry. This can be a good thing, but I’m more of a mind set that if you want to remove material faster get a courser rasp, not taller teeth (if that makes sense). I would imagine you could get used to the feel of how these rasps cut and they do leave an excellent finish, but I’d have to give Auriou the edge in user-friendliness. Auriou also has a wider range of rasp sizes, grain, etc. if you have extensive rasp needs.
Infill Hand Planes: The most unpredictable part of traveling to the Handworks event was winning one of the door prizes… in fact, I took home the most valuable door prize being awarded, a $1,200 Ron Brese block plane. I spent a few minutes trying out some of Ron’s larger planes at his bench (which cost between $2,000-$3,000) and they are sweet. But now that I’ve had some time to play with his block plane at home and compare it to my Lie-Nielsen low angle block plane, a lot of people have asked the obvious question, “does it work better than the Lie-Nielsen?”
In short, my answer is no, an infill block plane cannot do anything for you that any other well tuned plane can do. My Lie-Nielsen is just as sharp as the Brese plane, the bed angles are comparable, the soles on both tools are flat, and the mouth opening is very tight on the Brese plane, the Lie-Nielsen is adjustable. I planed some cherry and both tools gave fantastic results, as they should. So if the wood doesn’t care what is being used to cut it, why is a premium Lie-Nielsen $165 (already too much for some people) and a Brese plane $1,200? And why even buy one if it doesn’t leave a better finish? Here are my thoughts. First understand Ron’s price is not over-inflated. It’s a high price tag because each plane is hand made, the machining and woodworking are impeccable, and the tool performs beautifully. And that’s what you’re really paying for, the privilege of owning a functional work of art. Most woodworkers will never even see an infill plane in person, far fewer will own one, if you want to be in that group it comes at a cost. If all you’re after, however, is high-end performance, buy a Lie-Nielsen and don’t look back. It works great and to be honest, it’s more comfortable to use than an infill plane, it’s easier to adjust the depth of cut, and the mouth can be opened up for heavy material removal. So while my Brese plane will be put to use in my shop and cherished for generations, it will not be the workhorse. That remains the role of my LN 60.5 block plane.
That’s all for now, have a great day.
I recently returned from the Handworks event in Amana, Iowa, held on 5/24 & 5/25. It was an awesome trip featuring only hand tool vendors and only the best of the best. The chance to meet so many talented tool makers and try out so many premium tools in one sitting was unparalleled. Hopefully this becomes an annual event and maybe even moves around the country year to year to give more people a chance to attend.
Vintage hand drills are some of the most useful and inexpensive tools to have around the shop. Few are manufactured new today and the drills that are don’t come close to the quality of the vintage models. I have two sizes I use all the time, both made by Millers Falls, a #2 and #5A.
The biggest issue most people have with these “egg beater” drills is the misconception that they don’t work well. That’s true if you’ve only tried rusty junkers. It’s no different than using hand planes. Garbage planes cause more problems than they fix, but a well tuned plane can make you sell off all your power tools. A smooth running hand drill is accurate, quiet, fast, and never runs low on batteries. So if you’re interested in restoring an old drill, here’s how I go about it. DISCLAIMER: the operations shown on the drill press could be considered dangerous… so is using a tablesaw, jointer, etc. if you’re not familiar with the tool or operation being performed on that tool. In short, if you’re not comfortable with how I cleaned up these drills, don’t try it.
First, you need to acquire a drill in the usual manner (eBay, flea markets, tool shows, theft, etc). Look for three things: solid handles without cracks or a loose fit, gears with no broken or chipped teeth, and a chuck that operates with all 3 jaws and associated springs. Obviously major flaws like missing screws, cracked bodies, or rusted out drills are no good, but those are usually thrown out these days (a little surface rust isn’t a problem though). Most drills being sold are in at least satisfactory condition and can be had for $5-$25.
With the drill acquired, it’s time for the restoration process to begin. Disassemble the entire tool. Take out the screws, remove the drive gear, unscrew the chuck, etc. If any rust or surface tarnishing is present, give the parts a 24 hour bath in Evapo-Rust (more info on that here). Once the hardware is cleaned I paint the body with enamel, typically black gloss on the body, red on the gear, but it’s your drill, do as you like. There’s nothing magic about this process. Just brush the enamel on, then clamp it by the chuck in a vice to dry. Over-paint areas that butt up against metal that is supposed to be paint-free (like the edge of the gear). This will ensure full coverage and the over-painting will get removed later. It can take several days to fully dry, sometimes over a week depending on the temperature. Make sure the body is completely dry (no tackiness to the touch) before proceeding, otherwise you may be starting over (believe me, I know)…
On to the fun stuff (in my opinion at least). Most drills only have two screws in the assembly and it’s worth getting them pristine. Chuck them into the drill press (or lathe if you own one) with the head down. leave as much clearance as possible, but make sure you have enough threaded into the chuck so things stay in alignment. A couple warnings here: first, don’t over-tighten any of the threaded areas in the chuck or they can get damaged. You only need a firm enough grip to resist light material removal, so just gently hand-tighten the chuck. If you need to, put some blue tape around the threads. This will protect them a bit and give a better grip in the chuck. Now, with the screws secure and spinning, file the heads clean of dents, then finish with some fine sandpaper for a nice polish. I usually go to around 800 grit for a clean, somewhat matte finish.
The main gear is handled in a similar way, but you have to put a bolt through the center so there is something to chuck into the drill. File/sand the edges to the desired finish. Make sure any over-painting is removed.
With the hardware painted and cleaned up, it’s on to the wooden handles. The side knob that many drills have is easy to clean up by chucking into the drill press just like the screws, again, be careful not to damage the threads.
The gear handle is tricky. It can not be removed from the arm because it is typically riveted on. I got around this by spinning a steel rod in the press (in this case, a 1/2″ diameter center punch), clamping the handle on the bed of the press, and belting the two together with a generic pulley drive belt. Some light side-pressure and the friction of the belt is enough to spin the knob while sanding down to bare wood. A few tips here: use a large diameter rod to avoid bending under the side load as well as to provide enough surface area for the belt to stick to the rod. Also, keep the table close to the press to minimize the side load/torque on the press. Drills aren’t meant to withstand too much side load, so just use enough to spin the knob (which isn’t much). Center the knob over a cut-out in the table so it can spin freely (shown in the 3rd picture below).
For the large handle, the body (minus all removable parts) can be chucked into the press. There is one problem, however, as the center will spin while the body remains stationary. I placed a clamp over the small gear to lock it to the body. Tape could also work, but whatever you try, keep it tight to the body. Again, sand down to the bare wood.
Finally, some finishing touches. I have drills with film-finishes for the wood and others with oil. The film looks more traditional, but I like the feel of the oiled wood, so it’s up to you. There’s a good chance the main handle has a threaded cap (traditionally for bit storage). I don’t use these for anything at the moment, but I want it to work well for future use just in case, so I wax the wooden threads after the finish is dry. There are also several holes around the drill’s chuck and drive gear for oil. Put a few drops in and add more as required. My only other tip is in the fit of the main drive gear. I don’t like too much clearance between the gear and screw holding it to the body. Excessive slop is felt with every revolution of the drill and if the gears mesh too tightly it adds drag to the tool and increases the wear on the gears, shortening the life of the tool. I use plastic shim stock (because it wears well and is available in precise thicknesses) to take out the slop, leaving only a few thousandths of clearance.
That does it. You should be left with a top-notch drill that will last for generations. Happy drilling.