Alburnam's Archive

Ó 2000-2001  Stephen A. Shepherd

Tool Box

Tool Box

Brace and Bits

Cabinet Scraper


File & Rasp






Scratch Awl


Work Bench

These are the basic tools that you will need to do traditional hand woodworking.  They do not require a major investment and many tools can be found secondhand.  Divided into groups, the first set will be the fundamental tools required to do basic woodworking.  The other groups are tools that can be added to the basic set as your woodworking expertise improves and expands with experience.

Brace and Bits - Will be needed to drill holes for dowels, pegs, etc.  Standard size drill bits ¼", 3/8", ½", 5/8", ¾" and 1" are a good start for your collection.  You will use the first 3 more than the larger sizes and you may want to have extra bits in different smaller sizes.  The bits will work much better if they are sharp and clean.  If your bits are rusty, clean them, a shiny drill bit is easier to use, the sawdust is auger out of the hole effortlessly with a clean shiny bit.  See Boring, Also Boring and Drill Bits. 

Cabinet Scraper - This inexpensive tool can produce results on wood that cannot be achieved by any other method.  Made of steel, sometimes old saw blades, and shaped rectangular or gooseneck forms and sharpened using a burnisher to turn a fine burr on the working edges.  This fine burr cuts a very fine shaving from the surface of the wood.  Held with both hands and flexed to a bow, the scraper is held at an angle towards the wood and produces a fine finished surface. Can be used to smooth stubborn grain.  See Hand and Cabinet Scrapers.

Chisels - Your first set of chisels should include ¼”, ½”, ¾" and 1".  You should try and find a style that you like that is offered in a complete line from 1/8" to over 2".  Over time you will fill out your set of chisels and they will all match.  This sounds fine, but I use old and new chisels and only have a few pair of chisels with matching handles.  So it is all right to mix types of chisels.  I have six ½" chisels, one mortise, one paring, one bench, one carving, dogleg and one skew and none of the handles match.  The basic four chisels will provide all you need to get started.  See Chisels and Gouges and Sharpening.

File & Rasp - Good files and rasps are tools you can start out with one of each and expand your collection and time and demand dictates.  A file that is rough cut on one side and smooth cut on the other.  The first rasp should be one with one flat side and one curved side.  Wood files have courser teeth than metal working files and you will need a triangular metal file for sharpening the teeth of saws.  You will want to add to your collection with triangular shaped wood files, square shape, round shape and others that you might need.  Start out with a rasp and you may want to add rifflers, which are small rasps on the ends of handles and are fine for more delicate work.  Files and rasps can be used to shape and finish wood and are handy tools to have.  You can sharpen files and rasps by allowing them to soak in brine and allowed to rust.  They rust more on the flats and less on the sharp edges and rusting actually sharpens files and rasps.  See Rasps, Files, Rifflers and Floats.

Hammer - The hammer is an important tool for woodworking but most woodworkers make the mistake of thinking that they need a claw hammer.  There are two types of claw hammers, ones with straight claws called a construction or wreaking hammer.  The other is a more curved claw hammer called a cabinet hammer.  I find that I seldom need a claw and would rather have a more useable tool.  My selection is an English Warrington pattern.  It has a flat face like a regular hammer but has a cross peen instead of a claw.  The cross peen is useful for driving small brads held between the fingers.  I also have a couple of small ball peen hammers for riveting and other metal work.  You must keep the face of the hammer perfectly smooth and clean.  A little glue on the face of a hammer is more responsible for more bent nails than any other cause.  See Mallets and Hammers.

Mallet - The mallet is a much more useful tool than a hammer.  Metal hammers have their place but a mallet is a necessary and valuable tool.  While a metal hammer delivers a strong sharp blow, the hammer bounces of whatever it is struck against.  The mallet is a strong dull blow that does not waste its energy in a bounce but delivers all of the energy of the mass and momentum of the mallet to what ever it is striking.  I use both cabinet, square and rectangular mallets as well as round carver’s mallets.  The faces are at an angle to reduce the shock and provide a squarer strike to the mallet. See Mallets and Hammers.

Measure - This is your ruler, your yardstick, your tape measure, and your measurement.  I prefer to use a wooden or metal fixed ruler that is more stable and easier to use than a modern tape measure.  I make most of my own tools and I make my own rulers.  I have made a metal punch that punches exactly a one-inch mark with 1/8" increments.  These are stamped along the edge of a good stable wood like mahogany, beech or maple produce excellent tools.  Once you have made one of these stamps you can make several rulers of different length or for different applications.    Get the size tool that you most commonly use.  I am always amazed when a cabinetmaker brings out their 25' tape measure, I wonder how often they measure beyond 8'?  Remember no matter how long your ruler is you always wear out the first few inches first.  There is something classic about a nice folding wooden ruler.  See Inch and Layout Tools.

Planes - There are two planes that you should start your collection by purchasing.  You will need a smoothing plane with a double iron and a block plane (with a single iron).  These are the two planes that you will use the most.  When you add to your collection you will want to get a longer jack or fore plane, a rabbit or filister plane and then molding planes.  The first molding plane should be a bead plane.  Beads are good decorations and the bead in the edge of boards and beams is said to keep them from warping.  You will need to keep your planes sharp and clean.  A rusty bottom on a metal plane will cause you extra work as it drags along the surface.  Wooden bottom planes should be flat, smooth and can be lubricated with linseed oil or beeswax.  Do not put too much oil or wax on the bottoms of the planes, just enough to lubricate.  See Flat Hand Planing and Planing Moldings, Grooves, Dadoes and Rabbits.

Saws - You will need three saws, a rip saw with 5 to 6 teeth per inch, a cross cut saw with 10 to 12 teeth per inch and a dovetail saw with 14 or more teeth per inch.  The rip saw is used to rip boards or cut them with the grain, they have special sharpened teeth to do this job and the rip saw does not cut will cross grain.  The cross cut saw is meant to cut across the grain of the wood,  It does not do well as a rip saw but it can be done.  The dovetail saw is usually a rip saw, I have two dovetail saws, one sharpened as a rip and one sharpened as a cross cut.  They both have their applications.  To add to the toolbox you will want a coping saw, a tenon saw or two and a keyhole saw or pad saw that each has their own use and are handy for different situations.   See Hand Sawing and Saw Sharpening.

Scratch Awl - Do not use a pencil to do layout work, the vagaries of the pencil line produce inaccurate results, use the pencil to number or mark your stuff, but do not use for layout.  A scratch stock can be a simple ice pick or a fancy rosewood handled, brass-ferruled beauty.  I also use a Striking Knife made of metal that is used also for layout work.  Sharpened to a knife-edge these are handy tools for scoring the wood prior to sawing, etc.  The striking knife's edge should not be too sharp, just enough to score or mark the wood.  Most of my layout tools are made of wood, squares, rulers, triangles, etc. and I do not use the striking knife as I am worried that it will cut my tools.  So I use a scratch awl to do all my layout work.  The advantage of an awl or striking knife is that the wood fibers are scored by the awl and provides a more accurate line for cutting, etc.  See Layout Tools.

Square - The square is the tool that makes all of your work fit.  You will probably want at least two squares, one larger for panels and other big boards and a small one for marking smaller stuff.  I do not use metal squares, the idea of dropping a heavy metal square on my fine woodwork is too much.  I make my own squares and have several different sizes.  Make the leg and the tongue out of good stable woods, I use mahogany for the legs and maple or beech for the tongues.  Check the square while you are making it to make sure it is square.  You may have to recall those pesky mathematical theories that you paid little attention to in school and apply them to the manufacturing of your new tools, like the sum of the squares of the two sides is equal to the sum of the square of the hypotenuse side.  See Layout Tools.

Work Bench - The workbench is the tool that you will use the most, every time you do anything you use your workbench to hold your work.  The bench should be of the size and type that will be most useful to you.  Make sure that the bench is high enough, it is better to have a bench that is too tall than too short.  The bench needs to have the necessary strength and stability to allow you to work on it without moving, wobbling or racking.  It should be heavy enough to hold is place, the top needs to be perfectly flat so that the work you make on the bench will also be flat.  I have made several benches over the years and they keep getting better, I add new features that I have seen on old benches.  See Workbench.

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Filling Grain

Many woods, especially open ring porous woods such as oak, chestnut, ash, mahogany, walnut or hickory need to have the pores filled if a smack smooth finish is required.  Other woods such as burls and crotch grain cuts of wood might also need to be filled prior to finishing.  The idea is to put something in the pores to fill them up to flush with the surrounding surface of the wood.  This material must fill the grain, not shrink and be colored in the staining process and not fall out.  The classic pore filler is whiting (calcium carbonate) and linseed oil mixed to a thick slurry.  Mixed thick it can be used as putty to fill larger holes. Other materials such as pumice, rottenstone, marble dust or wood flour (very fine sawdust) are added as fillers.  Spanish whiting is a purer and whiter form of calcium carbonate.  A little turpentine can also be added to help in the drying time, other dryers can also be added to shorten the drying time.  I add a little marine spar varnish to the oil and whiting, this makes for a harder binder for the filler.  I only use the varnish if the wood is stained first as the varnish filler will not allow the stain to evenly penetrate the surrounding wood.  The only problem with this material is that it can take two or three days to dry completely but the results are well worth the time you wait.

If you examine old mahogany furniture you will come across pieces with a white material in their pores.  This is the original filler that the craftsmen used to make the surface smooth, however the dye or stain used to color the filler, a common procedure, has faded over time with exposure.  Some of the traditional dyes and stains are vegetable based, fugitive colors that will fade leaving just the whiting in the pores.

The reason for using filler is to make the surface optically flat so that it can receive a smooth finish.  Without filler the texture of the grain will be apparent.  If the pores are filled the grain is still usually visible but the texture of the grain will not show when the piece is finished.  If the pores are large it might be advisable to put two thin fills on instead of one thick to insure that it will dry readily.  If the filler shrinks, the texture of the grain will telegraph through the finish.

There is one method of putting the filler on the wood.  The wood is first cleaned of any dust and the filler is applied to the wood and forced into the pores.  Any excess is scraped off with a wide blade putty knife, it is allowed to dry and it is then sanded smooth.  The thickness of the filler is a matter of personal taste and experience.  Some like the filler thin enough to paint on with a brush.  This requires the use of a squeegee to force the liquid down into the pores of the wood.  The squeegee leaves little convex puddles of filler in each hole, which is better than concave puddles, which will still show the grain and requires a second filling.  Others prefer the filler be the consistency of tile grout that can be forced in with a trowel.  While others like the filler to have the character of putty which is forced and worked into the pores with a putty knife. 

Which ever method you prefer the excess needs to be removed before it dries as the filler is not that easy to scrape or sand smooth so a little extra work at this point will save you time later.  The filler needs to be completely dry and it must be sanded or scraped with a cabinet scraper before proceeding.  After applying the filler it is sometimes preferable to wipe off the filler across the grain so as not to wipe any filler from the grain if it is wiped with the grain.  Make sure to use extra filler on the end grain that will take up more filler.  Use a coarse cloth such as burlap or fine excelsior to wipe off the excess.  You do not want to use a smooth flat cloth to remove excess. When applying thin filler it can be forced into the grain by applying in a circular motion.  You do not want to wipe any of the filler out of the grain you are attempting to fill.  If the filler shrinks below the surface an additional coat of filler (usually thinner) is applied and allowed to dry.  Remove excess filler from details such as moldings, details and carvings by using a sharpened wooden stick, as this will be difficult to remove once the filler has dried.  The filler will usually haze as it has dried.  When you scrape or sand the filler the residue should be dry and whitish.  If it forms balls on the sandpaper, the filler is not dry enough.  Filling inlayed materials requires using a neutral color that will not stain the inlay.  If the inlays are already filled then the filler is just around where they are inlayed into the groundwork.

There are at least two different schools of filling concerning the order in which certain procedures are accomplished; the first is to stain, fill, sand and finish and the other is fill, sand, stain and finish.  The rivalry between the students of these two disciplines is sometimes fierce; there are probably reasons for being able to do both.  They have their advantages and disadvantages.  You may not ‘stain’ or change the color of the wood with pigments, but the nature of linseed oil and whiting is that it will darken the surrounding wood, as would a finish.  The stain happens whether or not you apply any ‘stain’.  All agree that the finish goes on last.

Stain –Fill – Sand – Finish

This method starts with the wood prepared by planing, scraping or sanding and the dust is removed and the appropriate stain is applied to the surface of the wood.  This is allowed to dry completely to insure no bleed-out of any liquid stain.  This method works better with dyes that will penetrate more than stains.  The pores are then filled with the pore filling mixture that needs to be tinted with pigments to match the stain of the wood.  Some prefer a perfect match to the stained wood; others prefer a darker filler to add contrast to produce a more interesting overall effect.  The excess filler is removed and allowed to completely dry.  Now care must be taken when you scrape or sand the surface to not sand or scrape through the stain to expose unstained wood underneath.  You do not want to end up with any filler on the wood as this may effect the how the finish looks.  The wood is then finished.

Fill – Sand – Stain – Finish

This method begins with the preparation of the wood followed by filling the pores of the wood.  Again, removing all excess and allowing the filler to completely dry.  The filled surface is then sanded and all of the filler is removed from the surrounding wood and left only in the pores of the wood.  If darker filler is used for contrast, it is very important to scrape or sand all filler from everything except the pores.  This is also important for the next step, which is to stain the wood.  The stain will affect the filler by coloring it, somewhat.  The filler will take the stain differently from the surrounding wood.  It might become considerably darker, or retain very little stain at all, depending upon the filler, the wood and the stain.  I never rely on the stain to darken my filler; I always use pigmented filler and make sure it is very dry to retain the desired color.  Applying stain is not the time for any surprises.  When the stain is dry the piece can be finished.

Each method has characteristics that can be used to your advantage.  Staining first gives you a better idea of what the color of the filler should look like but it is difficult to sand without removing the stain.  Filling first runs the risk of the filler not being the correct color but the finish can be scraped or sanded without the worry of removing any stain. 

Classic formula for grain filler:

Boiled Linseed Oil

Whiting (Calcium Carbonate)

Pigment (Dried Powdered), mixed to the desired consistency.

Other ingredients from old recipes:


                Rottenstone (Fuller’s Earth)

                Marble Dust

                Wood Flour (Fine sawdust)

One of my favorites is:

                3 parts Marine Spar Varnish

                1 part Linseed Oil

                ½ part Turpentine

                ½ part Rottenstone

                Dry powdered pigment if desired.

See Historic Pigments & Dyes, Chemical Staining and Staining for more information about stains, dyes, pigments and chemicals used to change the color of wood.  

Always dispose of oily rags properly.  Place them in water and then in a airy location (outside) where they can air dry.  A pile of oily rags can spontaneously combust and cause a fire, so always dispose of oily rags properly.

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Old Veneer

Today, most people think wood veneer is a new technology and scorn furniture made with veneers.  The truth is it's quite old, the earliest known examples of this technique being Egyptian and over 3000 years old.  Veneering is a time-honored method of using exotic and rare woods and is, in some cases, the only way of using certain unstable woods such as crotches and burls.  These beautiful and richly grained woods, after being made into veneer, are quickly stabilized by gluing onto a stable groundwork yielding patterns and finishes impossible to get with solid stock.  Left sufficiently thick to meet structural requirements these types of wood would warp, split, wind, twist, etc. becoming suitable only for the fireplace.

Modern veneers are created using a variety of powered machinery from hot knives to circular and band saws, this being one of the first uses of the circular saw when introduced in the early 1800's.  As the continuous power of the newly invented steam engine began replacing the water, wind and animal powered earlier shops, veneer production became easier.  Early veneers were cut one sheet or skin at a time using bow or frame saws.  The frame or sash saw with its rigid frame lent to the early practice of gang sawing several sheets at one time.  The gang frame veneer saw held several blades set parallel to each other with a predetermined distance between each blade, this setting the thickness of the veneers.  This saw, a gang saw; will cut one more sheet than it has blades, five blades cuts six sheets.  The gang saw requires at least two men to operate.  Working in rhythm the men would trade strokes while cutting the balk in a free standing vice.  As the cuts progress down, the balk is moved up to free new wood to be cut.  Small wedges were put into the kerfs to keep the wood from pinching the blade.  When the end was reached, the last inch or so was removed with a cross cut saw, leaving many sheets or skins of veneer then staked and dried.  Paper was inserted between the sheets and the pile weighted.  The thin sheets dry quickly; frequent changing of the papers for dry ones encourages drying.  Green cut veneer can be prepared for use in as little as 30 days air drying and considerably less time if mechanically dried.  Under normal conditions wood air-dries at the rate of one year per inch of thickness.  Reducing the thickness to 1/8”, reduces the air drying time to 1/8 year or a month and a half.  It is also much easier to cut most woods green, before they have seasoned and hardened.

The thinness of early veneers suggest that the veneers were cut thin and applied, causing one to wonder how they could cut them so thin.  In fact early veneers were quite thick, ¼” not being uncommon.  Once the veneers were cut and dried they were toothed on one side to remove the veneer saw marks and provide a flat surface to be glued to the groundwork, which is also roughened with a toothing plane.  The toothing plane provides a tooth or key to improve the holding ability of the glue.  The thick veneers are then glued down, the glue allowed to dry, then the surface is planed and scraped down to the desired thickness.  It is difficult to determine what thickness the original sheets were cut, but old veneers can be finished off to 3/16”, 1/8” or thinner.  It is also not uncommon to find veneer 3/16” on one end, tapering to a 1/16” on the other.  

HAND SAWING VENEER - The thought of hand sawing veneers may seem overwhelming at first, but a good sharp gang frame saw can cut several dozen large sheets per day.  A small burl can be rendered into a dozen sheets in an hour.  Crotches from virtually any tree including the lowly aspen can produce beautiful veneers.  Burls common in urban trees especially Box Elder and Maple make excellent veneers.  Wood gleaned from the woodpile, driftwood and damaged trees can easily be converted into exotically figured veneers.

Veneer saws usually have rather wide webs.  This insures the cuts will be straight.  It is important that the blades are sharp, the teeth well set, and the sides well polished and lubricated with wax or oil.  These blades are sharpened for ripping not cross cutting.  There are fewer teeth per inch with larger gullets.  Woods high in pitch are sticky and require the blades be periodically cleaned with turpentine.  The blades should be set to their proper location and uniformly tightened.  The frame members, especially the ends need to be strong enough to take the pressure exerted when the multiple blades are all tightened.  The balk is placed upright in the vice; the saw is started on the top to cut down using gravity to assist in the cut.  Do not force the saw let it cut with gentle pressure.  The cuts are made in the wood at the proper place to produce the most desirable grain patterns.  The cutting must be started straight to insure straight cuts.  Carefully examine the balk for the presence of foreign material that might be enclosed.  Check for bullet holes and possible inclusions in open topped crotches.  There is nothing worse than dulling five blades at once.  As the cutting progresses wedges might be required to maintain the proper kerf.  As the cuts are made pent up pressure from the tension and or compression is released.  The wedges prevent the kerfs from closing and binding the cutting blades.  Before the balk is moved up in the vice all of the cuts are made to the same depth.  Because of the unstable nature of woods usually used in veneers, the entire balk should be rendered into sheets and the extra sheets set aside for future work.  Position the balk at a comfortable working height, usually starting at shoulder height and working down.  If the cutting starts much above that, the work becomes difficult.  Take plenty of breaks, admire your progress and commend yourself on your resourcefulness and economy of purpose.  Take turns on the cutting side.  When the balk has been cut to within the final inch or two left within the vice, the gang work is done.  The tension should be released on the blades, they should be cleaned with turpentine if necessary and wiped down with oil.  Cutting green wood releases bound water that will rust good carbon steel blades, so dry them thoroughly.  With the balk still secured in the vice a fine blade cross cut saw is used to free the sheets from the end.  The crosscut kerf should cut just on the edge of the sheet, do not cut the sheets off above the kerfs to avoid splitting.  The loose sheets should be stacked together the way they were in the balk, with a layer of acid-free paper between each sheet.  Brown craft paper should not be used as it is high in sulfur and will discolor certain woods.  The pile is then weighted and fresh DRY paper is changed daily.  The veneer can be forced dried in an oven or kiln at very low temperatures, taking care not to scorch the wood.  If this process is too harsh it may cause seasoning damage such as checking or case hardening.  When the new veneer is cut from the balk, new pores are opened up from the sawing.  The sheets should be uniform, cut or worked on both sides.  If all sheets are used then the end sheets should also be worked (planed, sawn or scraped) to open the pores to insure uniform drying.

Once the skins have dried, they are still stored in weighted stacks, but the papers can be removed.  As the sheets are used the weights are replaced to help keep them flat.  Even wrinkled veneers can be softened with water prior to gluing.  The pieces must be dry for contact cement.  If you go through the trouble of hand sawing the veneers, then the traditional hide glue should be used and moistening the veneer is a step in the process of using hide glue.  Hand sawing veneers is an invigorating and rewarding process.

Baulk vice and gang veneer saw

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Snowshoe Lacing Seat

Snowshoe Seat Weaving

Illustrations from Shepherds' Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker, 1981,2001.

Snowshoe lacing for seat bottoms not only provides excellent support and good looks, but also can add structural integrity to the chair.  This is also referred to as a 'gut seat'.  The pattern is a simple version of woven cane chair seat bottoms.  The interwoven pattern is the same as used on snowshoes, the material is slightly different.  Most snowshoes are made with raw beaver hide, which is thin and strong enough for this type of application.  However for chair seat bottoms a heavier rawhide is required.  I have made seat bottoms from deer rawhide, it worked but had to be replaced after 10 years.  Elk hide will work, moose if it is not too thick and buffalo but not the hump are strong enough.  Raw cow hide is the best and most readily available, it shouldn't be too thick as it is difficult use and the texture is too rough.  The proper uniform thickness should be maintained for the lacing, though some variations are acceptable.  The thinner the rawhide the more it stretches, the thicker the more it shrinks.  Proper stretching during the lacing process is of critical importance, if the seat is over-stretched while it is wet, it can shrink enough to fracture the framework over which it is woven.  If it is not stretched enough it will sag when it dries.

                The hide should be cleaned of its hair and the inside membrane should be removed.  Soaking the skin in water and wood ash will slack the hair and it can be easily scraped off.  It has soaked enough when the skin is soft and the hide has a slight blue tinge.  The inside membrane or scarf skin should be scraped off and removed.  Do not soak the skin too long as the hide will become so soft it can easily be damaged during the scraping process.  You want the raw hide to be clean and soft enough to cut.  Cut the hide into strips, wider than the desired width of the finished dry seat, there will be shrinkage.  Strips ½" wide will shrink down to a little more than 3/8" when properly installed.  The strips do not need to be full length as simple end splices are common on many early chairs.  A small slit is made parallel to the sides of the strip at its center and in from the end by double the width of the strip.  The end to be spliced is placed through the slit of the next strip and the other end of the next strip is threaded back through the slit in the first strip and pulled until the end splice interlocks.  Using a circular method of cutting out the strips can result in a single length of rawhide lacing that will do an entire chair without a splice.  As large a circle as possible is described on the hide and it is cut out.  Next begin cutting on the outside edge and cut the same distance in all the way around.  This produces a continuous spiral of hide that will stretch out flat enough to use on seat bottoms.  The very inside of the spiral is too twisted for seat applications. 

There is grain to the rawhide just like there is grain in wood.  The rawhide will stretch more across the grain than with the grain.  With the grain is from head to tail across the grain is around the animal.  I like to have the hide slightly dryer to cut and then I soak it again to soften it enough to do the weaving.  If you use a long continuous strip you will need to roll the strip into a ball or on a wooden shuttle in order to pass it through the weaving as it progresses.  If you are using short sections you can splice on more strips of lacing as you go.  However before you roll it all into a ball it must be self spliced around the first rail to avoid a knot.  A slit like the one used for splicing is made at the beginning of the strip of lacing.  The end is wrapped around the rail and the other end is passed through the hole and the entire length of lacing is pulled through forming a loop that goes around the rail and secures the beginning of the weaving.  The lacing can then be rolled up to make the weaving process easier.  This ball also maintains the moisture content without allowing the lacing to dry out prematurely.  I keep a wet rag to cover the work already woven if the weather is warm and the humidity is low.  Sometimes you want the initial cross weaving to be slightly dry so that the fresh wetter hide slides more easily during the interweaving of the final weaving.

Starting on the left front side rail secure the lacing with the starting splice and then back to the center of then back rail going over the rail around, under the rail and over the lacing above.  You want the hair side of the rawhide up.  Keep this same over, around, under and over each time you are on that rail.  Keep the same wrapping pattern uniform to produce final results that acceptable.  Your uniformity is important to have properly finished results.  Changes and variations in the pattern will result in a weave that will not properly interlace and will be flawed.  It will work, it just won't be right.  Continue over to the right front side rail loop and go to the right side for the front rail, loop and go back to the back to the left of the first back loop and continue.  The pattern is now beginning to take shape and the placement of the loops over the rails can be adjusted to make the cross grids as uniform as possible.  You must weave the cross grids with the perpendicular cross grids as you do the weaving.  Keep the interlacing opposite of the one next to it to produce a proper simple weave.  This produces a square or rectangular square from four parts of the lacing.  (I have seen more rustic versions of the rawhide seat bottoms that are done with just a simple square weaving pattern.  Instead of doing the initial weaving diagonally it can be done side to side and front to back to produce the square pattern.)  Finish the cross grids on the back side and then lace the strip diagonally to the side rail with a securing loop knot.  See illustration, this loop knot goes from one side of the cross grid loop to the other.  This is done on both sides of the chair seat and forms the fifth and sixth sides of the woven pattern.  The six sided polygon in the center of each opening is formed by the six interwoven parts of the lacing.  The  last two strands must be woven with special attention to make sure that the weaving is proper and uniform.  Secure the final end on the side at the end of the weaving process.  This must be done with a knot, although I have seen pegs, nails or tacks used to secure the ends. 

If during the weaving process you pull the rawhide to tight, the results can be disastrous and I speak from experience.  I made a series of ladder back chairs from pine and the first to get a rawhide seat was my first rawhide seat.  I had an original to copy the pattern but did not realize how much I was pulling on the rawhide to make it tight as I was weaving it.  The next day I found a chair without any top stretchers, they were broken out in a gnarled mass of hide and splinters.  I re-soaked the hide, repaired the chair and did not pull excessively the next time.  Just remove the sag and the shrinking will do the rest.  After you have completed the weaving, you can adjust the weaving while it is still wet.  I make sure the spacing is uniform where it wraps around the rail and I go through the weaving hole by hole and adjust to make them as uniform as possible.  Get the pattern right in the center and do not worry too much about the edges, these can be distorted because of spacing.  If the pattern looks good in the middle, it's good enough. 

Snowshoe seat bottom

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Allow the rawhide to dry, this will vary due to temperature and humidity.  Check it out occasionally during the drying process as there can be movement and adjustments can be up to a point.  When it is too dry you can't do much.  I make sure the loops on the side are tight with no spaces between the strips in the loop bundles.  After it is completely dry, you can use a torch or sandpaper to remove any fuzz that may be on the rawhide strips.  If you use a torch be careful not to scorch the rawhide.  You can leave the rawhide unfinished or it may be varnished.  An exterior grade oil based marine spar varnish thinned with turpentine is recommended.  Oil should not be used as this will in effect tan the rawhide into leather and it will soften the raw hide.  Old dried out brittle rawhide can be treated with Moses T's Leather Reviver to preserve and strengthen historic examples.

See Woodworker's Journal, February, 2002 for an article on the Quebec Chair with a woven gut seat.

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The Problem

The reciprocal solution-a solution to many associated problems: trees-forest-land-air.

Forest Fire



Acid Rain

 Some have accepted a method of forest conservation that has led us down the road to purgatory.  They have inadvertently chosen the wrong method and having ego’s so large and out of control, and refuse to see that they are on the wrong path.  They have chosen to try to CONTROL Mother Nature rather than work with natural order.  What is needed is a well thought out plan that will work with the least effort, namely, let nature take its course and learn to live with it and work with it.

By removing fire as a predator of trees; the weak, diseased, infested, sickly trees are not eliminated as a matter of course and as they should be but are allowed to remain and infect other trees and create even more of a fire hazard.  If, as before people came here and forest fires were allowed to run their course a lot less effort would be spent.  It however is not just a matter of burning everything; we have created a much worse problem by preventing ‘forest fires’ and ‘range fires’.

Now it is not just a matter of setting forests on fire, that’s too much of a solution.  What is needed is a program that first allows cleanup to be done of the accumulated dead fall (available fuel).  This deadfall could be used for heating in the form of cordwood and also the possibility of pulpwood for paper products manufacture or distillation into alcohol.  This is a renewable resource we should utilize.  The necessary manpower needed for such a project could be a source of employment for many thousands of people.  The work could provide jobs for the unemployed and those capable of working on welfare and other social programs.

This type of project requires national support and can provide national contributions to the betterment of everyone’s lives.  Beautiful, rich, healthy forests can provide enjoyment for everyone while making forest lands safer to live in or around, they will provide more and healthier trees to the lumbering industry.  The trees can continue to provide oxygen and at the same time help to clean the air.

When examining all aspects of this problem/solution one gets the idea that this is a single (simple) solution for many problems.  It's not overstated, it's unrecognized.  If we don’t do something soon then we have all bought the farm.  It's not too simplistic, it just works.  The best ideas are simple ones, after all.

It may at first seem strange that the solution for forest fires are forest fires, but that natures course that what happen if the forest had been allowed to proceed unaffected by man.  Imagine if you can Joan-of-Arc standing at the stake, feet surrounded with fuel, ready to be burned.  Now imagine that every tree in the forest is in Joan-of-Arcs stead, fuel at their feet ready to meet their fiery demise.  I am sure that if you could ask the trees they would be concerned.  They stand quietly, majestically by, watching the ‘progress’ of mankind.  What would they say if they could?

Until I was more conversant with the physics and chemistry of acid rain, I had no idea that its solution lies in the very heart of the forest fire problem.  Because deciduous trees loose their leaves in the fall, they are not as directly affected by acid rain as the broad leaves are renewed annually.  Conifers on the other hand have their needles bathed in acid rain, year round.  But the Main problem is not in the air with the leaves or needles but in the chemistry of the ground and the root nutrient transfer mechanism.  The decomposers in the ground in the form of bacteria, fungus, mineral, etc. are eliminated and substances such as aluminum toxins are killing the trees, by starving them to death at the roots.

Geographic areas with high surface concentrations of alkali are less subject to the ravages of acid rain because the chemical base of the dirt and ground immediately neutralizes the acidity.  When considering this point it becomes clear that an easy solution to the effects of acid rain is the same as that for unhealthy forests-clean & burn.

After there has been a light burn, the fine ash is on the ground, the trees, their leaves or needles and when it rains that ash is washed off and into the soil.  Now ash is on the other side of the acid/base dichotomy from acid rain, therefore it has neutralizing tendencies to the acid rain.  It makes it go away or at least converts it into harmless salts that can be washed away.  Once again a simple solution works.  Because the long-term effects of acid rain are just coming to light, the SOLUTION if implemented now would start the reversing process.  This will not take as long as the problem to surface as the natural course of things work in their positive ways in a much more expedient manner. 

Once the forests have been cleaned and after the first burn, the cleanup operation needs never be done again, but it must be done initially.  An annual fire keep down the spread of disease, removes unhealthy trees and provides continual treatment (in the form of ash) for the acid rain problem, that no one seems to have a decent solution to. 

It may seem to some like this is a drastic solution, but once the cleanup is done and the forests allowed to go their natural course the annual fires are minor, even very small animals can avoid the very small blaze that accompanies this type of burn. 

Think of the vast sums of money that go into prevention of forest fires, advertising, the cost of fighting fires and the monetary figure of lost forestlands and destroyed personal property.  Also the number of deaths that occur in fast-intense burn forest fires would drop if not completely eliminated altogether.

We are losing our Trees.  The Black Forest in Germany is dying.  The trees on the East Coast of the U.S. are dying and no one knows why.  It is suspected that the trees are combing pollution from the skies and that may be the reason.  But one thing that is overlooked is the fact that trees are made to remove pollution, scrub the air and return oxygen and water vapor to our atmosphere.  Carbon dioxide is just what the trees need to make oxygen, and CO2 is one of our major pollutants.  So why are these trees dying? What’s killing them?

This threat is greater than Nuclear War, this IS happening right now.  When we loose the trees we loose everything.  Trees are why we are here.  Trees make our oxygen and respire water into the air to the water cycle.  When the trees are gone, we are gone.  With the ever-increasing conversion of forestland into agricultural land, we have an ever-decreasing method of cleaning up the atmosphere.  A great deal of the forestland in the world is so marginal that only one or two years of agriculture strip the soil of all nutrients and more land is required.  After the depletion, the forests, because of their marginality, fail to grow back into these areas.  Lack of ground cover allows erosion, both wind and water, to wash the soils away almost totally eliminating the possibility of reforestation.  The encroachments of populated areas are also contributing to the demise of trees.  New diseases and insects are perhaps inadvertently being introduced into new areas attacking trees that have no natural immunities or resistance’s to these attacks and easily fall prey to Dutch Elm Disease, Chestnut blight, Pine needle borers, etc.  What’s the trouble; from whence did this problem arise? What are we doing differently from the past?  It is far too easy to blame pollution for our problems, but history shows early pollution especially from extensive nineteenth century burning traditions and habits existed also.  But trees help clean the air, however if the trees are not as healthy and not as prolific, then they can not perform this valuable function.  With proper reforestation and replanting we can deal with the shear number problem, leaving the health of the trees the main concern.  Urban trees suffer from photo-confusion due to streetlights and are generally unhealthy than trees not near the artificial light source.  Other problems such as root constriction, butt damage due to lawn trimming devices, traffic, building construction, etc.  Though an important source of oxygen the forests and wilderness areas contribute most to the world's oxygen.  These are the areas that need attention but not like they have been given in the past.  Certain well-intended conservation measures have contributed more to the poor health and miserable condition of the woodlands than any other factor.

Man thought that he could improve upon natures way.  Not to be outdone he tried to control nature rather than go with the flow.  It’s this ‘ management’ that has ruined the health of the world’s trees.  The ancient ways of nature were at first copied by early man.  When nature would not oblige with a lightning started fire, the North American Indians would start the periodic fires to renew the earth.  These fires would burn and cleanse the forest of weak, diseased and unhealthy examples as well as eliminate the annually accumulated deadfall.  This prevents large accumulations of fuel to feed an inferno.  Certain species of trees require periodic fires to scarify the seeds, in some cases open the cones and distribute the seeds, e.g., Lodgepole pine, Jack & Limber pines.  Without the fires some trees such as nurse trees i.e. aspens in conifer forests, are dying out.  Colorado is loosing its ‘ Colorfullness’ as the aspens are not given a chance to nurse new growths because there is not any new growth.  Just starting fires is not the answer, as the conservation measures have created a mess that must first be cleaned up.  The deadfall has to be removed or it will fuel the fires to devastating proportions.  This deadfall is the result of ‘conservation & management’ from the ‘only you can prevent forest fires’ syndrome.  Now the forests have the fuel at their feet and one match or careless camper could torch the whole shooting match.  Once this is cleaned up the forests can be periodically burned, resulting in a small fire with little or no fuel to destroy everything.  Instead of total destruction burning everything smack smooth, a narrow fire line that even small animals can escape from, burns slowly through the forest.  This also gives the native plants a chance to be reintroduced into areas of extensive European growth.  The indigenous plants have a better chance in their natural, original environment.  ‘ Resistant’ plants and trees have been introduced but as can be seen, the Chinese Elm is anything but healthy and resistant.  The borer problem in pine trees and the tent caterpillar in everything would be eliminated by this periodic burning and would have less of an opportunity to destroy everything.  Invasive introduced plants like the kudzu introduced in 1876, the Russian thistle in 1894 and tamarisk have taken over the habitat of the native species of trees and other vascular plants choking them out in many areas.  Introduced plants sprout early in the year compared to native plants.  Early spring burns kill of European and Asian noxious, non-native plants.

Everyone has seen the destruction of total forest fires, the blackened hillsides, the pathetic stumps, scorched and charred.  This is heavy stuff to use in a campaign of forest fire management, but usually the only kind of place where this total burn occur are heavily managed areas.  No one has given light or limited burning a chance.  Most areas are too deadfall fueled to allow that to happen now.  If the dead-fall is cleaned up and used for cordwood or pulpwood and the forest periodically light burned, the forests would be healthier, the animals would have a more natural environment and less would have to be spent on ‘management’ and ‘fire-fighting’.

Trees and plants are tenacious, they bounce back from most anything offered by nature, however, one thing they have no chance against is the stupidity and ignorance of man, this is of too great a threat.

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Wood and Weather


Trees are things of lasting beauty, likewise wood is lasting providing it is used correctly.  The best way to use wood is the way it is in nature.  And the best products to use on wood for lasting protection are derived from nature.

Wood is a natural material that is in effect dead soon after it is created.  The tree is alive only in a thin layer, the cambium layer of living material just under the bark.  When the wood is no longer sapwood it becomes heartwood which is dead. Wood is composed of cellulose, protein and carbon.  When wood is alive it is converting to proteins; after it dies the proteins start to break down.  As these proteins wash away all that is left is cellulose wall and carbon.

 Wood is the structural support and in some cases food storage area for the tree.  The leaves are periodically alive, gaining water and nutrients from the soil and returning mineral rich food to the roots for storage.  The food is made with chlorophyll in the leaves as a result of the energy of the sun.  Wood the center supporting structure for the rest of the tree including the roots, is made on the surface under the bark with each years growing season.  Each year the previous growth ring dies and becomes the wood that we use today.  Each ring represents a years growth.  The ring is actually two rings; one thicker (wider & softer ring) made up of the greater growth pattern of the spring when water is plentiful and the other forming a thinner (narrower and harder ring) made during the hotter dryer part of the summer.

All wood fibers are made up of microscopic (or larger) aligned pores through which the water and minerals flow up and the food flows down.  The flow down is accomplished by gravity but the flow up requires several physical principles.  The water is drawn up the xylem (the name for the upward pores) through respiration (evaporation) of the water in the leaves creating a vacuum that pulls it up.  Hydrostatic pressure on the roots as well as the capillary actions of the thin pores (pipes or tubes) also raise minerals.  The xylem also has very small one way valves that keep the water and minerals from flowing backwards (down).  As the food flows down it travels down through the phloem, the name for the downward tubes.

An easy way to remember which is which is by saying each word out load and listening how they sound.  Xy-lem sounds upbeat and ends on an up note.  Phloem ends on a down note and also sounds like the word “flow” which indicates flowing down.  Remember xylem-up and Phloem-down.

This explanation is lengthy but necessary in understanding how wood weathers or endures.  An old saw is 'to put the wood the same way as it grows in nature'.  In other words put the outside of the wood out.  Application of this principle is evident in the traditional technique of setting fence posts.  Poles were placed in the ground upside down; this was to prevent the wood from sucking up ground water by its natural capillary tendency to do so.

When finishing wood the importance of the grain needs to be considered.  For exterior applications this is very important.  Hand split shingles last for years (¼  inch per century rate of deterioration) because the grain is not open, it doesn’t soak up water as readily.  If the wooden shingles are sawn then the grain or pores are opened up and water can soak into the wood, hastening deterioration.

When using wood, lumber and timbers, the way that the material occurs in nature must be respected.  It grows that way for a reason.  Centuries of evolution have made trees capable of living for hundreds if not thousands of years.  They last because of how they grow.  In order to insure that wood endures it needs to be positioned relative to how it grows in nature.  This point can’t be over emphasized.  It’s just easier to work WITH nature than AGAINST.

When wood is finished or treated with oils and other products, all of the above information must be considered.  The natural wood should be treated or finished with natural products such as linseed oil, beeswax and turpentine, synthetic petroleum distillate plastics are not at all like wood.

Wood is a homeostatic material, in other words it will adjust to the surrounding environment.  When the wood is exposed to dry and warm surroundings it shrinks across the grain.  Very little shrinkage occurs along the grain (from top to bottom).  When wood is exposed to cool or warm temperatures and high humidity the fibers swell up and the wood expands.  Wood is usually cut green and seasoned.  As the contained captured moisture (bound water) dries from the wood fibers, shrinks.  Oils can also be used to control how and at what rate the wood dries out.  In order to assure that the wood doesn't crack and warp as it seasons the ends of the logs or timbers are sealed in order for the wood to cure evenly.  If wood is worked while green it should be sealed with an oil (linseed and turpentine mixture works well) to maintain a constant rate of curing and minimize seasoning or shrinkage damage. 

With a  rigid plastic coating on or in its surface, wood is no longer able to adjust to seasonal changes. causes warping, cracking and damage to the wood while purportedly offering "protection".  Polyurethane have a negative rating for protection against water, while waxes like beeswax are the highest rated materials for moisture protection. 

Finishes like linseed oil, beeswax, turpentine, shellac and other natural resins and gums have long bond molecules and elastic properties that allow them to move with the changes in temperature and humidity, while protecting and enhancing the woods surface.  These are natural materials (gums, oils and resins) that work well with natural materials (wood).  The long bond molecules (are long but thin) penetrate in and moisturize the cellulose cell walls to replace the missing moisture with soluble fats.  The huge sticky polymers such as gums, resins and waxes form deposits the surface and finish and protect the wood on its exposed surfaces, again working with, not against nature. 

Natural finishes have been around for centuries; the Egyptians used natural gums and oils to finish their wooden objects.  Traditional finishes have stood the test of time and continue to  satisfy both craftsman and customer.  These mixtures were used continuously for centuries by master craftsmen and work or they wouldn’t have been used.  They were the very best treatments for use on wood. Some people today have lost sight of the how wood behaves or are not sufficiently informed as to the nature of wood  to understand how it must be finished. Wood must be finished in a manner similar to how the wood will behave with seasonal changes.  The finish must adjust to the movement of the wood, it must be such that it can constantly change and still protect the wood.  The finish and the wood must act together.  Hard plastic films can’t move and the wood will invariably be damaged.

Thought goes into constructing a piece of furniture so its parts will work together, such as loose panels in frames to allow for movement.  The same thought needs to go into how a piece of wood will behave when its finished.  Making allowances for movement in the framework is counteracted when the finish doesn’t allow for movement. Use what has always worked.  And use it in the way it occurs in nature.

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Using a Coachmaker's Brace

                "Brace yourself, this is going to be a bit boring", a quote from Shepherds' Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker, 1981, 2001 that I always find amusing.  The hand brace is a step up from the T-handled auger or drill.  The hand brace is a tool that can be made of wood by the craftsmen and many fine examples in wood or metal show the pride and craftsmanship of the past.  The brace, also called a bit stock, is the mechanical advantage with a crank that turns the motion into the drilling action.  A pad or knob on the top turns freely in the body of the brace and has a wide bearing surface against which pressure is applied.  Metal bit stocks were generally used by the coach making trade.  The other end has a bit chuck with a square tapered hole that accepts the drill bits.  This can be a fancy brass spring chuck that has a lug that engages a notch in the square tapered shank of the drill bit and is released by pressing a button on the side of the chuck.  Others are cast pewter, horn ferrules or just square tapered holes cut in the end of the brace.  Some metal braces have turn screws that secure the bit in place.  While it is generally gripped with the hand, it can also be rested against your chest for additional pressure.  Traditional chair makers would wear a wooden bib around their neck.  This breastplate has straps that hold it in place, a strap around the neck and straps around the chest.  There is a concave depression in the center of the bib into which the knob or pad of the brace is placed.  Some of these old examples are highly carved and polished smooth with use and were considered as status symbols and proudly worn.  One type of brace that always incorporates the breastplate or a separate hand held pad is called a fixed brace.  These are wooden cranks with a drill bit permanently fixed to the end of the brace.  Because of the simplicity of this brace without a knob, allows the bits to be fit into their own individual braces.  A number of extra braces are made to accommodate the bits that are frequently used.  A brace with a chuck can also be made in this fashion and the bits interchangeable.  The other end does not have a knob or pad but is instead sharpened to a conical point.  This point rides in a countersunk hole in a separate pad or a hole in the breastplate.  Some breastplates have a depression for a knob as well as several holes for using fixed braces.

Beam Drill

Beam Drill

This type of drill brace can also be used as a beam drill.  A fixed table of this original drill press has a large beam fixed above the table with a fulcrum pivot on one end usually attached to a post and a handle that is pulled down on the other end of the beam.  Sometimes referred to as a post drill.  Directly above the table, the beam is at the proper height and with a properly placed countersunk hole on its underside accepts the conical point of the fixed brace.  Some adjustments for different thickness' of material that is being drilled can be accommodated by adjusting the fulcrum point up or down or adjusting the height of the table.  The material is centered, the drill point is placed on its mark, the beam is lifted and the braces conical point placed into the countersunk hole on the underside of the beam.  As the brace is cranked, the weight of the beam bears directly down on the brace and can be increased by pulling down on the handle on the end of the beam.  Weights can also be hung from the end of the handle to provide a constant downward pressure.  With proper placement of the drill bit and brace, the beam press drills very accurate vertical holes.  Let gravity do the work for you together with the leverage advantage, reduces the most difficult drilling job to one that is just boring.

Drilling horizontal holes by hand is a problem getting the drill perpendicular to the work.  While you can use a square to help determine the proper angle drilling vertically, it is more difficult when you are drilling a hole horizontally.  One trick you can use to make sure that you are holding the drill in the horizontal plane, you can sight to keep the drilling square and use this to determine horizontal.  Place a metal ring on the shank of the drill bit.  I use one that is 1 inch inside diameter so it freely turns around the shank of the drill.  If you are holding the brace and bit horizontally as you turn the brace, the metal ring will track in one place.  If it tracks towards the bit you are tipped up on the knob end.  If the metal ring tracks towards the brace you are tipping down and the knob is too low.  Keep it tracking in one place and your hole will be square.

Horizontal boring using tracking ring

Drilling holes at angles require something that helps you get the angles right.  An adjustable bevel gauge can be set to the proper angle and the brace and bit aligned to the angle of the gauge and checked during the drilling process.  If you are doing a number of holes at a repeated angle, you may want to construct a drilling guide with a hole pre-drilled in a block of wood.  This is placed or clamped on the work and the drilling is done down the hole into the work.  Stop gauges are made for bits that allow a particular depth of hole to be drilled again and again without measuring.  A mark on the drill bit or a piece of tape can provide a visual reminder of the depth to be achieved but a stop gauge or stop collar will provide accurate results that does not need to be visibly monitored.

You will want to pre-mark the hole to be drilled with an awl that gives the drill bit a positive place to start.  Nose cutting bits, spoon augers and pod augers require a small hole to start to prevent the drill from wandering as it is starting.  I use a small gouge to make a small depression in the correct place.  This allows these bits without center spurs or screws to get properly started in its drilling.  A pre-drilled drilling guide can also be used to start these bits without making a hole but they need to be clamped down to the work to prevent them from wandering as the drill engages the wood.

Traditional drill bits are not a collection of random designs from creative toolmakers of the past, they each have their own characteristics and application.  Certain drill bits make good entry holes but not good exit holes such as the center bit and these are drilled from both sides to insure good entry and exit holes.  A gimblet bit will tend to split out when it is going into the wood but produces an exit hole that does not need to be backed up with a scrap of wood.  For other bits, a backup piece of scrap wood is a good idea to insure that the exit hole does not split out.  Spoon bits and pod augers will drill holes and not follow the grain.  Down cutting nose augers work very will in end grain. Spoon or gouge bits are good for blind doweling joints.  A gimblet bit produces a tapered hole that is not the kind of hole you want for a dowel or peg.  Center bits and twist augers produce a flat bottom hole.

Other bits that have been incorporated for the brace includes screw driver bits.  The incredible leverage advantage of a brace will convince you of the ability to drive the largest screws into the hardest woods.  Also the speed at which you can set a screw is amazing when compared to turning a turn screw (screw driver) by hand.  Also spanner bits, which are in effect a screwdriver bit with a notch in the center of the blade to clear the spanner bolt, which tightens or loosens these special spanner nuts.  Specialty hole cutters to cut larger holes, hole saws as well as dowel pointers and tenon cutters have square tapered shanks for the hand brace.  Sockets (no they are not new) for square nuts of fixed size work well in the brace.  Countersinks with a variety of cutting heads produce the tapered counter sunk edges to dress up previously drilled holes and for counter sunk holes for screw heads.  When using countersinks, it is sometimes recommended to use them at as high a speed as you can turn the brace to produce a uniform hole.  Because of the changing grain at slow speeds the heads sometimes make lopsided holes, so the higher speed tends to eliminate non-round tapered holes.  Tapered reamers used to make tapered holes for chair construction act like countersinks to dress the hole to the proper taper to accept the appropriately shaped tenon.  One particularly useful bit for a brace is an extension bit.  I have a hand forged wrought iron bit extension that is 25 ¼" long.  It has a tapered end that fits into the brace and the other end has a square tapered hole that accepts the drill bits.  Besides the reach advantage when I am drilling angled holes with the extension it is easier to eyeball the proper angle because of the increased length.

Using drill extension to get proper angle

Adapted devices and clever mechanical inventions have utilized the circular motion of this hand-cranked tool.  A paddled device used to mix finishes, stains and paints or to mix food.  Plug cutters are used to make round plugs of wood to cover counter bored screw holes.  Starting a plug cutter in a brace requires a guide to hold the plug cutter above the work as it has a tendency to walk on the surface of the wood because it lacks a center spur.  Button bits are special ground center bits that cuts a profile on thin material like nacre.  Drilled from both sides of thin material, this bit actually cuts a profile in the surface to form the face of a button.  The center point on these bits is very small and only protrudes enough to engage the material to provide a pivot point as the outside spur defines the outside of the button.  Larger versions can be made for the beam drill press and rosettes can be cut in the surface of flat square material.  A drilling guide used to position this cutter needs to be clamped into position to insure the rosette is cut in the desired location and to prevent the bit or work from wandering.

Center bits have the advantage of being able to change directions slightly while drilling and this can be good, but the bit can also wander.  The center bit is easier when drilling at angles, the bit is started straight in and once it begins to cut the brace and bit are tilted to the correct angle and the drilling continues.  Gimblet bits and some pod augers can also vary slightly when they are being used. Spoon and gouge bits as well as twist augers will drill straight holes as their nature prevents them from wandering in cross grain.  End grain requires special bits.

When drilling with almost any type of bit it is always a good idea to periodically stop and remove the shavings from the hole.  If excessive chips build up in and around the drill bit it will cause the drill to bind.  Certain bits like twist augers will tend to extract the shavings they make, but this works in an ideal world and they will still bind if the hole and bit are not cleared.  Center bits do not tend to bind up because of the space around the shaft but it is always a good idea to clean out the hole periodically.  Also sharp, clean and bright bits will work more effortlessly that sharp dirty, rusty bits.  A polished surface does not tend to rust as easily and works much better.  Keep your bits sharp and clean them after each use, the acids and moisture in wood can rust your drill bits.  On particularly sappy or wet wood it is a good idea to lubricate you bit with beeswax to help prevent binding.  Do not use too much especially if you are drilling holes that will be glued, glue does not stick to wax.

It is a good idea to mark where you are going to be drilling with an awl rather than a pencil.  The awl gives a positive starting point for the drill bit.  Gouge and spoon bits can be started in large awl holes without the need to make a starting depression with a chisel or gouge.  If you use a drilling guide, this is not necessary but for all other applications this is a good habit to get into.

I use my brace so frequently that I don't even have a place for it nor a designated peg from which to hang it.  I just keep it on my bench within easy reach.

For a look at a different kind of drill bit see Unusual Tools and for continued consideration of this boring subject see Also Boring.  For a more detailed discussion of drill bits see Drill Bits.

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Also Boring

This is a continuing discussion of the art of making holes.  Besides the typical brace and bit there are other methods of drilling holes, these include some of the earliest tools used by mankind.  Some of these ancient inventions are still of use today.  The whole idea is to make a hole.  Some of these methods make crude, rough holes others can make very fine, delicate piercing.  During the stone age when man first used tools, sharpened rocks were used to scrape holes in wood.  About 6000 years ago man developed the technology to make bronze tools, which were hard enough to make augers to drill holes.  Some archaic methods of hardening bronze and copper gave them a very hard edge that would take wear, a technique that is lost in history.  Then about 3000 years ago our ancestors smelted and produced iron, which was a superior improvement over bronze and would hold an edge.  Then sometime before the 12th century, blacksmiths were able to include nearly 2% carbon into their iron to produce steel, which could be hardened much harder than iron.  Steel held an edge, did not wear like iron but was more brittle and expensive.  Used in conjunction with iron and placed on the working edges of tools and later these tools were made entirely of steel.

Burn Auger

Burn Auger - The burn auger produces a hole in wood by burning the wood and reaming out the char with the auger itself.  This style of auger is thousands of years old and even the crudest bog iron can burn a smooth hole.  Usually square iron tapered to a point with the handle bent at 90º to provide leverage and a grip for this hot tool.  It is heated in a fire and the point is thrust into the wood and twisted, burning and reaming the wood to the desired size.  The taper allows for different size holes to be made with one tool.  Useful for work in the woods and for certain applications provide just the desired results.  The holes tend to have smooth edges because of the charring and this can be helpful for lacing such as canoe making.  The fire also hardens the hole so it will wear better than a mechanically bored hole.  Almost any piece of metal that can be heated to even a dull red will burn a hole in most woods.  A popular method of drilling used by the Native Americans.

Old style bow drill

Bow Drill - Perhaps the oldest mechanical drill, a quill or spindle is reciprocated back and forth by a string held in shape with a bow.  This mechanical advantage would quickly spin the drill back and forth, so the bit is sharpened to cut in both directions.  The idea undoubtedly dates to the Stone Age with refinements until fine ebony, brass and steel are combined into exquisitely made examples of nineteenth century pre-industrial revolution, craftsmanship.  I recently made yet another bow drill, a copy of an 1840’s piece in the Smithsonian, although mine was all wood.  I made the handle and bow from one piece turned and carved section of proper straight grain hickory.  The pulley and ratchet is beech and the pawl, maple.  I turned beech bobbins for the flat double cut bits made from large wire nails and are usually made as one unit with a fixed bit.  Some have round tapered chucks to hold interchangeable bits.  A separate wedge is used to remove the bits from the tight fitting tapered chuck.  The hand plate of mine is fashioned from chestnut with an iron bearing plate let in to the flat side.  Some of these plates were made to be worn as a bib on the chest for pushing on the bobbin/bit, others are just handles.  There is a trick to using this drill and it takes good eye hand coordination to keep the string on the bobbin.  If you are having trouble, try pointing the tip of the bow down as you work the bow back and forth.  An excessive amount of work for an archaic tool, but it is fun to use occasionally, especially for shallow holes and looks great on the shop wall.

Very early pump drill

Pump Drill - This is one of my favorite drills, perhaps it is from its unique reciprocal action, the rhythm necessary to successfully use this tool, you can use it with one hand or just because it is nifty.  A pump drill consists of  three parts and the bit, again this tool cuts in both directions so it requires special bits and some have chucks for changing bits, others have fixed bits that can not be changed.  The shaft has the bit (or chuck) at one end and the other has a hole through which the cord or string passes.  The shaft has to be long enough to allow the string to wind around the top as the drill operates.  On the shaft towards the bit, is placed a flywheel, which gives the bit momentum as it is being used.  Commonly made of hard dense wood, soapstone or other stone that can be easily worked can be used as can machined metal such as brass, iron or bronze occur on historical examples.  The handle has a hole in the center that passes over the shaft and a hole is drilled in each end, through which the string passes and it attached.  The string is tied to one end of the handle, the handle is slipped over the shaft, and the string is threaded through the hole at the top of the shaft and passes through the hole on the other end of the handle.  The handle is positioned just above the flywheel and the other end of the string secured to the handle.  To start drilling the shaft is turned while the handle is held with your hand.  The handle is pulled up as the string winds up around the top of the shaft and when it is pulled up, the bit is placed where it is going to drill and gentle downward pressure is applied to the handle causing the shaft to turn.  As you reach the bottom of the stroke, the drill reverses direction and the flywheel winds the string back up as you continue to drill.  A simple up down stroke is converted into the circular action needed for drilling.  Once you develop the rhythm this tool is a pleasure to use.  Why this tool is not used more is beyond me, it is easy to build and can be used anywhere.

.Archimedes Drill

Archimedes Drill - Whether Archimedes developed this drill is not known, however his principle of the Archimedes Screw lends its function and name to this drill.  These can have fixed bits or chucks for interchangeable bits.  There is a metal shaft made of square stock that is twisted from top to bottom.  A free spinning knob on the top is used to hold the shaft and bit in position and to provide pressure for drilling.  A hollow knob with a metal follower on one end of the hole has a square opening just slightly larger than the metal shaft.  As the knob is moved up and down on the shaft, it causes the square metal shaft to rotate back and forth producing the drilling action.  Linear motion is converted into circular motion in a rather novel and unique drill.  Another tool that is very handy for small holes.  Versions of this tool are still being made and work quite well.

Hand Crank or 'Egg beather" drill

Hand Crank Gear Drill - The most modern of drills considered here, this tool was developed in the nineteenth century and became common after the American Civil War.  These require machining to make the necessary parts and gears.  Commonly called an eggbeater drill a circular motion is converted and accelerated to another circular motion to do the drilling.  This type of drill used bits that cut only in one direction, however you can use double cutting bits in this tool.  A handle and framework provides the place for the gears, shaft and crank handle can be attached.  By turning the crank handle the action of the large gear spins the smaller gear attached to the drilling shaft and chuck.  The gear ratio gives a mechanical advantage as well as an increase in speed.  Another version of this tool is incorporated into a special stand and with two crank  handles for drilling large holes in timber frame construction and was introduced in the early 1850's.  Early models used a leather belt on a pulley to extract the bit after it has drilled to depth.  Later models used a rack and pinion gear to pull the bit out of the hole and some were adjustable to drill at angles.  Having a wooden base framework, the worker could sit or kneel on the end to hold it in place.

Chucks & Collets - These are the devices that secure the drill bit to the drill.  A method of attaching bits to drills made of wood is a simple slot cut in the end of the shaft and a flat piece of metal, shaped to the size of the drill on one end is held within the slot or kerf and held with a screw, bolt and nut or a compression ring.  A metal ring is placed on the shaft that is turned with a taper from the bit end getting smaller as it goes up the shaft.  The ring is snug fitting and when it is forced onto the taper it pinches the bit in the slot securing it in the correct position for drilling.  This split collet is a simple and elegant solution to fixing bits to the drill.  Another traditional chuck is a tapered chuck.  These are used in metal versions of bow drills, pump drills or other types and require accurate machine work.  The bits need an appropriate taper turned on their shanks and the chuck has a tapered hole that the machined bits fit into.  The friction fit holds them in place and the downward pressure also holds them in place.  Because they can be difficult to remove, slots are provided on the shank that allows a small wedge to be driven in on the backside of the bit to force it out of the chuck when it needs to be changed or sharpened.  Square tapered chucks can also be used to hold traditional drill bits.  These can be friction fit, equipped with a spring chuck to catch and secure the bit or a thumbscrew to hold the bit in place.  The split collet holds straight round cylinder bits and have very little adjustment for size variation.  The split collets come in different sizes for different bit shank sizes.   Split chucks or double chucks were developed in the late nineteenth century (1880) and were capable of holding square tapered bits as well as larger round drill bits.  The Jacobs Chuck with 3 jaws was invented by Mr. A. I. Jacobs in 1902 and has become the modern standard to hold round drill bits.  However, they can not hold the old square tapered bits and many fine old examples of drill bits with square tapered shanks have been destroyed by cutting off the square part so it could be used in a modern drill.  The ratchet mechanism was incorporated on bit stocks in the 1890’s.

Various chucks

Box Engine - This is a rather unique drill that is capable of drilling large holes as well as tapered holes and was used by wheelwrights to make the tapered holes in wheel hubs (boxes) to fit the tapered thimble skeins.  This tool has a threaded shaft with a turning handle on one end, an adjustable L shaped cutter held by a bolt and a three tined, tapped flange.  There needs to be a hole previously drilled through the work, through which the threaded shaft is inserted and the flange (nut) holds the shaft centered in the work and the tines engage the wood.  The cutter is adjusted to the desired size of the hole being re-drilled.  The L shaped cutter is sharpened along the long and short leg on the inside to cut both down and out.  The handle is then turned advancing the cutter into the wood, when it reaches the other end  the cutter is reversed until the flange disengages from the wood and is turned off.  One advantage to this cutter is that it can cut a tapered hole, by stopping the cutting backing out, adjusting the cutter and continuing until the taper is cut.  Tapered reamers are then used to smooth the tapered cut with the box engine removing the bulk of the wood.

  For information on other forms of drilling see Boring, Unusual Tools and Drill Bits.

Illustrations from Shepherds' Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker, 1981,2001

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Drill Bits

This is the business end of the drill, it is what does the work, and it makes a hole.  Mankind has been drilling holes in wood from the stone age on.  This discussion will concentrate on the types of drill bits used in North American woodworking in the nineteenth century.  Some of the designs used in the nineteenth century were originally developed hundreds of years before, others were created in that century.  As technology advanced some of these designs became obsolete but some have endured because of their great design.  As with all cutting tools, bits need to be sharp and clean to operate properly.  A bright bit works much better than one that is dull from rusting or pitting.  While it is not advisable to remove all pitting, all rust must be removed and the surfaces polished bright.  The bit goes easier into the wood and the chips come out better when the bit is bright.  Lubricating the drill with wax or grease helps when drilling difficult wood.  If it is used for dowels or pegs excess lubricant can cause problems with glue, so use it sparingly.  Take care when using these old bits, the steel is not as hard as modern materials and the bits can be distorted if excessive force is used.  An old term for a drill or drilling device or the drilling itself is ‘wimble’.

The advantage of drilling by hand rather than using high-speed modern bits, which produce perfect smooth holes, is the fact that a hand drill will actually push some of the wood out of the way as it makes the hole.  This can be particularly useful when making chairs.  When the tenon of a leg or stretcher is glued into the hole the wood that was pushed out of the way will swell back up producing a much tighter joint.

1. Button Bit - The button bit while not necessarily a woodworking tool is a variation of the center bit.  Instead of a blade to cut wood away, these were made to scrape bone, horn, antler, ivory or mother of pearl into buttons.  The center bit is used to give the button bit a place to revolve around, the spur is used to delineated the size of the button and the metal in between is shaped in the reverse profile of the button.  As it is turned it creates a shape into the thin material and after it has finished scraping the shape, the outside spur frees the material and the button is formed.  Drilling from both sides will make buttons that are reversible.  Early buttons will frequently have a center hole.  Button makers will use bits with little or no center spur and must be held with a guide to prevent walking, but will produce buttons without a center hole.  This work is best done underwater to control the nasty dust created from some of these materials.

2. Center Bit - Perhaps one of the more common bits of the nineteenth century this bit resembles a modern spade or butterfly bit, which is where they got the idea.  This bit produces a very smooth entry hole, is used for shallow drilling because of the tendency of the bit to drift during drilling.  The bit has a center spur that orients the bit and prevents walking, on one side of the flat bit is a spur that scores the wood prior to the opposite side removing it as it follows around.  The other side has a lip bent out and sharpened producing an angled cutting edge that easily removes the previously scored wood.  These bits require much less metal to make than twist bits and were not as expensive to manufacture.  Most center bits are not very long and were not intended for deep holes nor are they recommended for dowels or pegs.  The center spur needs to be sharp as does the scoring spur.  The scoring spur is flat on the outside and beveled on the inside, do not excessively sharpen the outside of the spur or the bit will bind.  The cutting lip should be sharpened like a chisel or plane iron, the bottom flat (or at an angle) and the bevel on top is where the sharpening should be concentrated.

3. Counter Bore Bit - This is a variation of the center bit and is used to drill a larger hole in a previously drilled hole.  It is difficult to drill a larger hole in a smaller hole and keep the larger hole centered.  This is used to counter bore a hole for something like the head of a bolt.  The bit looks like a center bit but instead of a center spur there is a cylinder of metal that is meant to go into the previously drilled hole and guide the bit to cut a larger hole.  Instead of pivoting on the center spur, the bit pivots on the cylinder that bears on the sides of the hole.  This type of bit is invaluable when this special purpose hole is required.  It is difficult to drill a larger hole in a pre-existing smaller hole, usually the large hole is drilled first and the smaller hole is then drilled in the center of the larger hole.  When the need arises and you do not have the proper counter bore bit, placing a dowel in the hole to give the spur a place to pivot allowing a center bit to drill the larger hole.  The center bit then either pushes the dowel out of the way or drills it away.

4. Gimlet Bit - This is perhaps my favorite drill bit and a pervasive drill bit in the nineteenth century.  They are shaped like a cigar with a twist.  Pointed on the end, the bit widens to a taper and opens up like an open pea pod and the edge cuts all the way to the maximum diameter and then it tapers back in to the shank.  One advantage of this bit is that it has a long cutting edge, unfortunately it tends to split out during the entry cut but the exit hole is very clean as the bit pulls the wood up and in as it cuts rather than splitting out.  Care must be used when drilling with small sizes of this drill bit as the walls are thin and excessive force can untwist, bend or distort the gimlet bit.  Some gimlet bits have a thicker tip to provide more material for strength and sharpening and some have threads filed into the outside tip to help the bit enter and advance into the wood.  Because of the shape of this bit it can tend to split out wood because of the pointed wedge shape of the bit.  Do the sharpening on the inside of the bit, make sure that the outside is flat and smooth and sharpen the bit on the inside from the tip up to where the bit is widest as that is all of the area that does the actual cutting.  A round file is useful for sharpening.

5.Gouge Bit - This bit gets its name because it looks like a gouge.  A round cylinder of metal  that is smooth on the outside and hollow on the inside, a trough that is sharpened on its leading edge like an in cannel gouge, sharpened on the inside.  This bit requires a starting hole or depression to start drilling and will produce a fairly clean entry cut but tends to split out on the backside.  A block of wood with a hole the same size as the gouge bit can be clamped to the work and this provides a guide for the gouge bit to begin drilling.  The gouge bit is sharpened on the bottom edge only, if the sides are sharp they will tend to enlarge the hole as the drill advances.  Because it is not tapered it does not tend to split the wood.  Sometimes referred to as a Shell Bit.

6. Nose Auger - This bit is similar to the spoon or gouge bit with the exception of a lip formed on the leading edge.  Also called a down cutting auger, this bit is excellent for end grain drilling as it does not tend to drift as it is drilling, it is also good for pegs or dowels.  The lip provides a low angle cutting edge that does the cutting and the shape of the body keeps the bit drilling straight.  Sharpened like a gouge or spoon bit so that the only cutting edge is at the bottom, in the case of the nose auger, the lip is sharpened.  Flatten the bottom side and do the sharpening on the inside.

7. Pod Auger - This bit is just like a gimlet bit but does not have a twist.  It is also like a spoon bit except that it goes to a point, some of these points have threads filed in their leading edge to aid the wood in starting and advancing into the wood.  These bits are sharpened like gimlet bits only sharpening to the widest point of the drill bit.

8. Quill Bits - While there is some discussion as to the various names applied to drill bits, this group of bits have a shape of a quill, the support structure of a feather.  Quill bits are round cylinders with one or more flutes running parallel with the shaft of the bit.  These actually scrape rather than cut the holes.  Double flutes are made to be used in either direction or both directions.  Sometimes they are not flutes at all but merely flat areas ground on one or more sides of the cylinder and the sharp intersection of the flat and round surfaces form the cutting edge.  Some quills are made of flat metal with a dull point and both sides of the metal do the cutting.  These flat quills are limited to thin bits as they cannot take the pressure of trying to grind or scrape a very large hole.  Quill bits have no fancy sharpening techniques, the outside should be smooth and the flute or flat side is where the sharpening is accomplished.  Flat quills are sharpened by squaring the edges.

9. Spoon Bit - The spoon bit is similar to a gouge bit with the exception that the end is turned up like the lip of a spoon.  Some gouge bits started out as spoon bits and the lip was just sharpened away.  This bit leaves a distinctive round bottom hole.  Because this bit does not have a centering spur, it can tend to walk over the surface.  A small depression made with another tool aids in the spoon bit’s starting drilling.  Because of the shape of these bits they are excellent for dowels or pegs in that their design helps produce a smooth straight hole.  This bit can cause splitting on the backside when drilling completely through a piece of wood.  Sharpen spoon bits from the tip up both sides of the hollow to the widest part of the drill bit, sharpening up the sides can cause problems by enlarging the initial hole as the rest of the hole is being drilled.

Twist Bits - The twist bit as we know it today, not the modern metal cutting twist bits used in woodworking today, these bits were formed by twisting flat metal into a twisted cylinder that evacuates chips as it makes them.  10. Hollow twist bits formed by shaping a round rod around a mandrel with a cutting edge on the end were developed earlier, but the design of the Frenchman L’Hommideau of the first decade of the nineteenth century is the basic design from which modern twist bits are derived, the double fluted twist, #11.  Jennings improvement in the middle of that century (1855) is the twist bits we use today, #12.  The solid center single flute double-spurred cutter called the Irwin Pattern appears as early as 1884, #13.  These are the twist bits that have spurs projecting down in the same direction as the center spur or screw.  Earlier versions prior to Russell Jennings improvement had the spurs formed on the topside towards the shank.  See Detail #11 & #12.  Larger versions of this bit frequently have a permanently attached T handle and is used for building and ship construction.  Smaller versions with square tapered shanks are used in the brace to drill straight holes with smooth sides.  The older the twist bit the slower the twist, in other words there are fewer twists per inch than newer versions of this classic bit.  The advantage of this design is that the chips that the drill makes are evacuated from the hole with the twist of the body of the drill.  The straight cylinder shape insures that the hole is drilled straight.  The early versions had a center spur for locating the drill on the board to prevent it from walking as it cuts.  Threaded center screws were a later development and would pull the bit into the wood.  Coarse threads for softwood and fine threads for hardwood.  The outside spurs were on the inside of the cutting edge, in other words they were bent back towards the shank and smoothed the sides of the cut.  Later the spurs were put on the other side and would score the wood first before the leading (cutting) edge engages the wood.  This produces a smoother entry hole without splitting like the earlier versions tended to do.  When sharpening the outside of the spur should be flat and even with the outside of the bit and the sharpening (major metal removal) done on the inside, the spur needs to be sharp along its front and top edge.  The cutting edge should be flattened on the bottom and the sharpening done on the inside.  This needs to be sharp from the center spur or screw to the outside edge.  Some bits have solid center spurs, others are threaded, course for softwood and fine threads for hardwoods. 

These traditional drill bits live distinctive holes especially at the bottom of the hole.  This can be useful when trying to determine the date of an artifact’s construction.  For more information about drilling, boring, making holes, etc. See Boring, Also Boring and Unusual Tools.

Drill Bits

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Layout Tools

Layout using a metal square and striking knife

Laying out you work properly and accurately is critical to fine woodworking.  This is important to insure that all of your pieces fit together and that similar pieces such as drawers and doors are the proper size and fit into their openings.  Never use a pencil for layout work, it is not accurate enough, you should use a scratch awl or striking knife or the pin in a marking gauge to make much more accurate layout marks.  These marks give you a positive mark to work to, if using a chisel to cut to the mark it gives you a place where the chisel will start and you can feel the chisel set into that mark.  You can use a sharp pencil to darken that score line if necessary to make it easier to see but you should rely on the score line rather than the vagaries of a pencil line.  Use a pencil to number pieces or for witness marks but don’t use it for layout.  The awl, knife or pin actually score and cut the top fibers of the wood, which minimizes chipping as the wood is being worked.

1. Scratch Awl – I use this tool for layout and have several around the shop, a couple on the bench and one at the lathe.  I prefer the scratch awl because I use wooden layout tools and a knife can cut into the wood blades and ruin the efficacy of these wooden tools.  The handle must be angled away from the guide to insure that the line is marked in the correct place.  A thick straightedge can cause the awl to mark wide of the intended place if the awl handle is tipped in the wrong direction.  The awl is also handy for marking a precise hole for drilling. 

2. Striking Knife – This tool is another that will make a fine score mark on the wood.  The blade of this knife is sharp but not razor sharp; it just needs to score the wood, which is a shallow cut.  These come in different shapes but the idea is to have a knife that is used just for layout work and is not intended to cut or carve.  It is not a good idea to use a real sharp knife as this can damage wooden layout tools or be dulled by metal.  It is relatively blunt so it will not cut deep into the wood.  A shallow cut will be easier to accomplish and will not tend to follow the grain.  You want to keep the cutting edge next to the edge to make the marks accurately.

3. Ruler – Rulers are tools used to mark out distances, they are usually inscribed with inch marks with finer hash marks in between.  Numbered to make layout easier, these are used for marking out and should not be used as a straight edge.  The advantage of making your own ruler is that you can mark it in the direction you prefer, some like left to right others prefer right to left numbering sequence.  I make my own rulers from stable hardwoods and mark them with an inch long stamp.  See Inch.  I have a few smaller rulers made of brass, bone and ivory (the ivory being from old piano keys).  These are engraved with an engravers burin and the marks filled with black stain.  Using a magnifying glass I was able to accurately mark one of the small rulers with 32nd inch marks, a ruler I seldom use.  Marks at 1/8 inch are all I generally use, I can guess at a 16th inch and in most woodworking that is fine enough.  It is a good idea to use the same ruler on all layout work as different rulers are read differently.  I always double check my measurements and hear that old saw ‘measure twice and cut once’ going off in my head.  ‘I cut it twice and it is still too short’.  Do not use a ruler for a straight edge, use it as a ruler.

4. Straight Edge – This tool is for marking straight lines that have been properly laid out with a ruler.  Made of stable wood that will take the wear of repeated use, it can be re-edged when necessary.  I have holes drilled in my straight edges and I keep them on a peg out of the way where the edge will not get dented or dinged, which will impair its accuracy.  When using a straight edge place it on the ‘money side’ and mark on the ‘waste side’ of the work.  Therefore if the awl or knife wanders away from the straight edge it is on the waste side that will be removed.  Notice the grain on the wood you are marking and be aware of where it will cause the mark to wander.  When marking long lines it is a good idea to clamp the straight edge to the work, freeing you to concentrate on marking rather than holding the straight edge in place.  If the grain pulls the awl or knife away from the straight edge as you mark in one direction, change directions and make your score mark from the other direction to insure a straight layout line.

5. Square – Most of the squares I use are made of wood and there is a very good reason other than I can’t make metal squares is that they will not damage the work if you accidentally drop it on the surface.  Squares are made with a wider leg and a thinner tongue joined at a 90° angle.  You can check the accuracy of a square by placing the leg against the edge of a board and making a mark on the board along the tongue.  The leg is reversed to the other side of the line and held against the board; if it is square the lines will be the same.  Or you can do the math; the sum of the squares of the two sides is equal to the sum of the square of the hypotenuse side.  You can adjust inaccurate squares by sanding or scraping until the square is square.  Using a center punch and carefully placing punch marks at the juncture of the leg and tongue to straighten metal squares.  If you punch on the outside of the corner the metal will actually move and lessen the inside angle.  A punch on the inside will increase the inside angle.  Old metal squares will sometimes have these punch marks at their corners and these were used to square the square.  Another advantage of wooden squares is that they can be stood up on their wide leg with the tongue upright and used as a drilling guide and for other purposes.

6. Triangles – While triangles are not a common tool in most woodworking shops it is handy for design and layout.  A 45° triangle has two corners at 45° and one at 90° and is handy for checking square inside corners and miters.  A 30/60 triangle has one corner at 30°, one at 60° and one at 90°.  If a certain angle is encountered frequently in your work, you can make a triangle to that particular angle.

7. Protractor – The protractor is a semicircle of metal or wood marked with degree marks around its 180° circumference.  This is used in conjunction with a bevel gauge to transfer or determine angles other than 90°.  My protractor is made of quartersawn white oak for stability with an inlay of holly for the hash marks.  The marks on the holly are score marks to insure accuracy and I have numbered them in both directions to make reading the tool easier.  On the straight side of the protractor there is a small notch in the exact center on the edge to provide a reference mark from which angles are struck.

8. Bevel Gauge – The bevel gauge is like a square except the tongue is adjustable and can be secured at any angle.  The gauge can be placed over an angled piece whose angle is not known, secured and checked against the protractor to determine an angle.  The gauge can be set with the leg against the bottom of the protractor and the tongue moved to the desired angle and secured.  This angle can then be transferred to the work.  For the wide leg, I always use a stable hardwood such as mahogany and for the tongue I use a smooth hardwood such as beech or maple.  The tongue is thin and folds up into a slot cut into the leg.  The two pieces are secured with a small carriage bolt with a washer and wing nut.  The square shank of the carriage bolt prevents it from turning in the hole and the washer and wing nut are tightened to squeeze the tongue between the two sides of the leg and holds it in place. 

9. Traveler – The traveler is a tool for making measurements of or layout for circular shaped objects such as wagon wheels, barrels, tabletops, etc.  It can also be used to measure lengths longer than your ruler.  It is simply a wheel held in a handle.  The wheel has a known circumference of a particular length with an index mark on the edge.  Every time the wheel goes around one time a certain length is measured.  For instance an 8-inch diameter wheel would mark a distance of?  Remember back to school when you thought you wouldn’t use this math stuff?  Need a refresher course: circumference is equal to twice pi times the radius, (C=2πr) with π being 3.1415926536.  An 8-inch diameter traveler would measure out 25.132 inches.  A wheel a little bigger than 7 ½” will proscribe a length of 24”, a more handy measurement.  Blacksmiths will use travelers made of iron for use on hot metal such as wagon tires, for woodwork a wooden traveler is easy to make and easier on the woodwork.  I have made them of cherry, beech and maple with hickory or ash handles.  The edge of the wheel should be uniform with no sharp edges but it shouldn’t be too smooth.  A slightly rough edge will grip the surface better and not slip, also a little rosin on the edge can help with traction.

10.French Curve – This is a tool that has one or more sweeping curved surfaces and the part of the tool that has the appropriate curved portion is used for making a smooth layout mark.   Most French curves are too small for anything other that design and intricate small layouts such as carving.  A popular curve is the large Ram’s Horn used by coach makers to layout the sweeping curves on carriages and wagons and is handy for larger curved lines.  You are not limited by the curves on these tools; you can use just a portion of a curve, and then reposition the tool to change the arc or direction of the curve.

Sweep [French Curve] - in maple, 10" long

11. Plumbs – these tools are used to determine if something is vertical.  Traditional plumbs are weights or plumbs (from the Latin plumbum for lead {Pb}) of lead or other heavy metal like iron or brass with a point on the end and a knob or hole for attaching the string.  The plumb bob with a string can be used by itself but most plumbs used in woodworking and cabinet shops had wooden frames to make them easier to use.  The wooden frame should be of a stable wood such as mahogany, cherry, maple or beech.  From 1 to 4 feet long the frame is just a piece of wood with parallel sides with a slot cut for the string and a hole for the plumb to swing freely.  An index mark on the framework or on a plate placed in the center under the plumb indicates that the plumb is perfectly vertical when the tip of the plumb is aligned with the mark on the frame.  Also called a plumb stick.

12. Levels – are tools to determine if something is horizontal.  Similar to the plumb it has a perpendicular leg that is placed on the surface being leveled.  The bob will indicate when the tool is level by pointing directly to the index mark.  Other early versions of the modern levels called spirit levels for the alcohol and water in the glass vials set in wooden frameworks.  The alcohol keeps the water from freezing.  The vial has a bubble of air trapped on the inside, the vial is secured in the wooden body and when the bubble is in the center of the vial, the tool is perfectly level.  Small marks are sometimes etched on the vial to determine if the bubble is centered.  Others have plates surrounding and protecting the glass have those marks.  Models of this tool will have covers that slide over the vial to protect it from damage.  Affectionately referred to as ‘whiskey sticks’.  ‘A half a bubble off’ can mean more than out of level.

13. Chalk Line – is merely a string that has been rubbed with chalk.  Also called a ‘snap line’, the string is pulled taught, held against the work on the proper marks and the string is ‘snapped’ to leave a chalk residue mark in a straight line.  Grasping the string between the thumb and index finger and lifting the string straight up from the surface a couple of inches and releasing, when it snaps the chalk onto the work.  Simple wooden reels and a lump of chalk are all that are necessary.

14. Patterns – Not only are these handy to have for repeating a certain form, they look great hanging around the shop walls and are valuable selling tools by being able to show the customer the exact shape of a table leg, chair splat or cresting rail.  Patterns should be made of stable wood and are usually thinner than the actual pieces that are copied.  Thin patterns are easier to use, take up less space and if slightly warped can be pushed flat for the actual layout work.  For wide repeated patterns, for economy can be made in half and reversed to produce the other side.  Turning patterns can be made with detail cut in one side and used to take measurements from a centerline.  I join the pieces with small rabbit joints and sometimes double dovetail keys for both strength and decoration.  After all these are hanging on the wall so why not make them look good?  A Story Pole is a changeable pattern, usually made of a light colored and lightweight piece of wood.  Its length is determined by what is being built.  Long ones are tall enough to layout a house with marks on its length of window height, door height, ceiling height and other critical measurements.  They are usually one story tall.  Smaller ones used in cabinet or chair shops are marked with bottom, top, shelf and drawer locations or seat height, slat location and cresting rail height to insure all parts are milled the same.  For new jobs the old marks are removed and new ones are laid out.  Any questions about measurements are all there on the story pole.  They tell the whole story.

Laying out your work should be a deliberate and accurate action; this is going to determine how your work will fit and look.  Take the time to accurately measure, carefully locate the correct position, place and secure the tools and precisely mark your work.  The extra time it takes to make sure your lay out is done properly will save you time and materials instead of making them again.  ‘Why is there never enough time to do it right, but always enough time to do it over?’

Various Layout Tools

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