Sunday, May 9, 2010

Down The Garden Path

Do others know what led them to work with hand tools? This is what set me off:

Don Weber on the cover of the April, 2004 issue of Popular Woodworking.

It called to me like nothing had before. I'd been watching New Yankee Workshop for 15 years, and occasionally that crazy guy from North Carolina whose workshop was more disorganized than mine. I had lusted after every power tool and shiny jig made, and suddenly here was a bolt from the blue.

The figure on the cover seemed too bucolic to believe. But Don Weber's the real deal. He's a Welsh woodworker and blacksmith in Paint Lick, Kentucky, just outside the arts and crafts enclave of Berea (where my parents met in college, and just a hundred miles west of where I spent my last two years of high school after growing up in southeast Pennsylvania). His article "Entirely By Hand" described the construction of a small side table worked in green wood, riven straight from a log and built with hand tools. I wanted to do that. I really wanted to do that. But I wasn't ready yet.

Over the next 2 years, I started to accumulate new and used hand tools. I bought new Stanley 4, 5, and 6 planes and played with them a bit, but didn't really make any progress. That changed with two critical enabling events.

First, I found Chris Scwharz's article Sharpening Plane Irons and Chisels on the Popular Woodworking website. That finally allowed me to get my planes usable once I invested in a pair of DMT Duo-Sharp stones. It was the first step toward mastery of a gateway skill.

Second, I found Drew Langsner's website and ordered his book Green Woodworking: Handcrafting Wood from Log to Finished Product and a froe. I built the shaving horse from his plan, bought a drawknife, and started practicing on fallen wood I got from my coworkers (in New England, there's always a tree down at somebody's house somewhere).

The shaving horse I built from Drew's book.

So in July, 2006, when I saw the pile of logs at Boy Scout Camp Wanocksett at the base of Mt. Monadnock in Dublin, NH, I was ready. I was there as an Assistant Scoutmaster with my son's troop for a week of summer camp. They had cleared a spot for a new shower house, and felled a big oak that was crowding the Nature Den. The camp ranger was planning on cutting it all up for firewood. I asked him if I could use a couple for a project, then ran home to get my tools and shaving horse.

My timber processing tools. The orange paint keeps things from disappearing in the leaves.

Up to this point the biggest log I had split was 16" diameter 4' long oak. I decided to see if I could split the large oak lying by the Nature Den. They had left two 8' sections of it on the ground, so I didn't have to pull anything from the pile.

It took about 10 minutes to do the first split with wedges and sledge. Then another 10 minutes for each quarter split. I was quite surprised at how easy it was. I cut off some short sections and used the froe to rive off several pieces. I had intended to build Don Weber's table, but I hadn't been able to find my copy of the magazine, and I couldn't remember just what the legs were like. So I decided to model it on the shaving horse, a simple small slab top and tapered shaved legs.

During the day at Scout camp, the boys are all off at program time working on merit badges. The adults are free to use the camp areas: shoot skeet at the shotgun range, take a kayak or small sailboat out on the lake, climb on the climbing tower, go for a swim or a bike ride or a hike. Or just sit around the campsite all day drinking coffee, but where's the fun in that?

Every morning there's a short Scoutmaster meeting just to keep tabs on things. At the next meeting, I announced that I was going to split the other log, then would be up in the parking area making a small side table, and invited them to come see. So after the meeting I had an audience of eight middle-aged dads. The photos below are from the video that follows (courtesy of Doug Becker).

Starting the first wedge. The quartered first log is lying at the far end. That's the Nature Den behind it.

A second wedge to enlarge the crack.

Walking the wedges down the length of the log.

For furniture parts, it would be more practical to buck the log into shorter lengths first, but I wanted to see if I could split something this big, just for fun. Naturally, since there was an audience, this one didn't go as smoothly as the first one had. After 30 minutes, I still hadn't completed the first split.

Here's the problem: the log has a twist to it. That means thick, strong internal fibers holding the two halves together. The near end has two birch gluts inserted to hold it open. I finally got the halves far enough apart to get in with a hatchet and sever the fibers.

The video below is heavily edited for brevity. I've removed the original audio to spare you the gaggle of 12-year-old boys in the background as they worked on their ecology merit badge. Unfortunately, that means you don't get to hear the satisfying thock Thock THOCK! of the wedges seating, and the split popping and groaning under the strain.

The quarters of the first log. The halves of the second log lie at the upper left.

Three other Scoutmaster joined me off and on during merit badge time over the next three days. One was a builder from Cape Cod who had never used hand tools. Like Tom Sawyer, I let them try their hands at the shaving horse. Big grins as they pulled curls off the leg blanks with the drawknife.

The only work surface I had was the shaving horse and a couple of parallel clamps. Great for shaving, the horse makes a lousy planing bench. Plus, this was before I had heard of J. Alexander or Peter Follansbee. Peter's 17th-century hewing methods would have been a big help with the slab top. And since I hadn't yet seen Chris Schwarz's Coarse, Medium and Fine DVD, I didn't realize my jack plane could hog off big thick shavings.

So we spent a lot more effort than necessary. Every once in a while some other dad would wander by, rolling his eyes and saying he was glad he had his table saw.

But picture it. Perfect New Hampshire summer days at the foot of Mt. Monadnock, working in the shade of the maples lining the grassy assembly field. At the far side of the field, past the pines at water's edge, the lake glittering in the sunlight. What more beautiful workshop? Pure woodworking bliss.

The final side table. The splay on the legs is based on the shaving horse. It's too much for a small piece like this, but it'll do for rustic porch furniture. Look at that gorgeous ray flake!

I brought a couple of the oak rivings home. They've spent the last 4 years in my garage, so I don't think they can be considered green any more.

I may try some of Peter Follansbee's 17th-century techniques on these. I've been scouring his website recently.

For the next 2 years, a number of Schwarz's articles in Popular Woodworking and Woodworking Magazine would form the basis for my skills, along with several books by other authors. Adam Cherubini's "Arts & Mysteries" column inspired me to use traditional techniques exclusively. I learned how to sharpen and use handsaws, braces, bits, and chisels. I learned how to make mortises, tenons, and dovetails. I still need lots of practice.

Two more things finally motivated me to real action. First was the the book The Joiner And Cabinet Maker. The original 19th-century text by an anonymous author and the 21st-century annotations and additions by Joel Moskowitz and Chris Schwarz provided valuable information and step-by-step skills.

Second was Tom Fidgen's old blog (converted to a new website). His use of wooden molding planes to reproduce a wooden door fascinated me, and his blog inspired me to start this one as I made the decision to finally build my workbench (and once again it was Chris Schwarz's work over 5 years that I was following).

So these days I'm well down the garden path. My uncle had started me on it when I was 8. For 40 years I followed the typical arc. I loved watching Norm every week. I can never say anything bad about him. But I no longer care about power tools. This is much more fun. And that crazy guy from North Carolina? I hang on his every word.

Recommended Books and Videos
Green Woodworking: A Hands-On-ApproachThe Woodwright's Guide: Working Wood with Wedge and EdgeMade by Hand: Furniture Projects from the Unplugged WoodshopWorkbenches: From Design And Theory To Construction And Use (Popular Woodworking)
Coarse, Medium and Fine (DVD)


  1. Great post Steve. I've really been wanting to try my hand at green woodworking, inspired by Peter Follansbee's work. A shave horse is the next project on my list. I am always happy to find a blog with someone who works exclusively with hand tools. I'm not quite there yet, but I'm working on it. I really enjoy the way Adam Cherubini and Bob Rozaieski work. Again, great post and I look forward to reading more.

    Jamie Bacon

  2. Remarkable blog! I have no words to praise, it has really allured me.


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