Saturday, November 6, 2010

New Peter Ross Hold Fasts

Great day in the morning but these are nice.

Brand new hand forged hold fasts (and is that one word or two?) from master blacksmith Peter Ross, late of Colonial Williamsburg and acknowledged as one of America's great artisans.  If you want to see iron work that will make your jaw drop, drop by his website:

There are several more or less successful attempts at a factory made holdfast on the market.  There is even a typically over-engineered one that uses a threaded screw to provide downward pressure, so it's really more of a benchtop downward acting vise than anything.  Some of the true friction-action holdfasts have a bad reputation for fracturing under repeated use - that will never happen with these beauties.  You hold them in your hand and you just know that 150 years from now they'll be on somebody's bench - maybe a great great grandson or daughter if you're lucky and raise 'em right.

Of course you know how they work.  There is a 3/4" hole drilled in the bench top, or in the skirt boards, and into it you drop the holdfast.  Whack it down with a couple of mallet blows, and friction works its magic.  To release, just whack the back, behind the bend, and it's free.  Simplicity itself.  Needs no lubrication.  Y2K compliant. 

In the skirt board, they provide amazing holding power.  One end of the board in the vise or under the planing hook and the other under a holdfast and you're good for all the planing you'd ever need to do.  When finished, whack it and you're outa there.

They cost a good bit more than the rinky dink factory jobs, but there comes a time in a person's life when they've had enough of rinky dink and want to have something solid and beautiful and basically perfect in their kit, something that will last 200 years of daily use, for the price of a couple of dinners out.

Peter's standard model is made for a 7/8" hole - I got the 3/4" by request because I already had the holes drilled for the small Jorgensen bench stops discussed earlier.  Even scaled down slightly, they are massive and I can't imagine any need for a larger model unless you're holding down really massive work pieces.  

To my chagrin, I waxed some of the holes to make the bench stops easier to turn and to insert and remove, and now they are completely useless for holdfast use and will not grip, no matter what.  So let that be a lesson to you - don't wax your bench holes if you want to use these puppies or you'll be sad.  

And to all those of you facing an onslaught of post modernist, over engineered frippery in the workshop, I have two words of advice for you, courtesy of Patrick O'Brian:

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Greatest Album in the World

High Atmosphere: Ballads and Banjo Tunes from Virginia and North Carolina Collected by John Cohen in

Not words to bandy about lightly, I know.  But if I could only grab one album of music to take on the last spaceship leaving Earth, I think I would get this one.  Plenty of other people will bring "Hotel California" and I'm sure there will be plenty of Beethoven and Grateful Dead to keep us satisfied on our multi-year trip to Alpha Centauri.  But there might not be anything like this, or certainly anything as good as this, and that would be, as the saying goes, a crying shame.

I try to keep fluff to a minimum on this blog, but we must digress occasionally.  A little poetry and music never hurt anyone and you do better work if you have tunes to listen to while you're pushing a file.

"High Atmosphere", a compilation of recordings made in the Appalachian mountains in 1965 by John Cohen, was originally released in 1975.  What's a nice Jewish boy doing in the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina?  Snagging the finest authentic mountain music ever recorded, that's what.  There are lots of other albums of original music out there, some of them splendid, some of them merely amusing, some pretty forgettable.  As with rifles and houses and furniture, just because it's old doesn't mean it's good.  But this music is good.  No, it's great.  And I mean great in the Julius Caesar sense of the word.  Thanks to Cohen, this music will live forever.  It was re-released in 1995, apparently with new material added, although I haven't compared the song list to my original vinyl LP to see what's been added.  (The pre-1995 CD did not have all the songs from the LP - I believe two were missing.  Be sure and get the 1995 re-release.)

If you have no prior experience with original recordings of Appalachian music, you are missing out.  Even if you don't wind up liking it, you should acquaint yourself briefly with it and keep some on hand in case you need a look into the past, (or you have some really cool friends over for moonshine and barefoot wrestling.)  This music is unaffected, raw, honest, unapologetic, spontaneous, joyous, and dreadfully sad.  Some of it is absolutely chilling.  Lloyd Chandler's "Remember and Do Pray For Me" will lift the hair off your head, as does his "A Conversation With Death."  Wade Ward's "Shady Grove" may be the finest version of this classic tune ever recorded.  Dellie Norton's two wonderful (possibly Elizabethan) ballads are sung in a voice that cannot be described easily in words.

There is a lot more of this music out there.  The magnificent "Mountain Music of Kentucky" is almost as good, and is more wide reaching in styles represented.  Bascom Lamar Lunsford's  "Ballads, Banjo Tunes and Sacred Songs of North Carolina" is exceptional and shows one man's ability to both fully appreciate this music as well as authentically create it himself.  Tommy Jarrell's albums are seminal fiddle recordings.  Roscoe Holcombe is the Bob Dylan and Robert Johnson of this music rolled into one.  But there is no collection of Appalachian music that will wither you where you stand quite as effectively as "High Atmosphere."

Available on Rounder Records as well as and  Incidentally, if you're into this stuff, a subscription to will give you access to vast quantities of original recordings of Appalachian, early country, and blues, back before the suits got ahold of our ancestors' music and made it into the flavorless paste that it is now.

Helpful links, no extra charge:

The Legacy Of Tommy Jarrell, Vol. 1: Sail Away Ladies

Monday, October 11, 2010

Rifle carving

A quick photo from last week showing the ground work done on my rifle.  Backgrounds taken down and smoothed.  The next step is modelling the carving, or putting in the three dimensional detail, although this pattern is pretty simple and in keeping with the spirit of the rifles on which it is based.

The rifle now, at present, is carved and has it's asphaltum stain on, and the first coat of oil.  Will add photos soon.  The asphaltum was a success, but very very BROWN.  No reddish cast at all, so I augmented with a little red stained oil.  Very nice so far.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Going down the rabbit hole

Well, it's begun - I'm going to build a rifling bench.  I got two blank rifling worms from Steve Bookout several years ago and one night the bench top was cleaned off so I thought I'd go ahead and throw a pencil line on one of them.  For the uninitiated, this is a long wooden pole with a series of slow spiral grooves on it that, when attached to an iron rod with a cutter on the end, will cut similar spiral grooves on the inside of a barrel, thus making it a rifle barrel.

Rifling grooves are described in their "twist rate", which is usually termed something like "one turn in 48" which mean that the spiral grooves will make one complete turn (from 12 oclock back around to 12 oclock again) in 48" of length on the pole.  This is an insanely slow rate of twist compared to modern rifle barrels which are often one turn in 12 or even 10 inches to stabilize long, pointed modern bullets travelling at very high speeds.  But a round lead ball is a leisurely, gentleman's tool, and need only spin at a sedate pace to achieve stability and accuracy.  My rifler, the first one, will be one turn in 56", for larger size barrels, from about .45 caliber and up.  I'll make a one in 48" for smaller than .45 caliber, as it's traditional that a slightly faster twist rate helps stabilize smaller caliber balls.

Here you can see the rough idea - this is the round rifling "worm" with a red line snaking slowly around it at a rate of one turn in 56".  If you look just beneath the red line you'll notice a pale whitish area - this is actually a piece of scotch tape that wraps around the worm.  I scribbled red Sharpie over one edge of the tape, making a crisp accurate line when the tape is pulled of.

How does the tape get on there?

You lay the angle out as a right triangle.  The base of the triangle is the length of the diameter of the rifler (in this case 9")  the other leg of the right angle is the maximum length of one turn (here, it's 56") and the hypotenuse between those two points describes the angle that will become the spiral groove, and is where you lay your tape down, carefully, upside down.  You can use other things - heavy wire would work too - and you roll (carefully) the rifler over this material to transfer it onto the rifler in a spiral pattern.  The rifler stays at all times parallel to the leg of the triangle that is 56" long, not the hypotenuse.

You get a rough idea - the small square is representing the 9" leg and the long straight edge is used to lay out 56", only it was laid out on the edge of the bench.  The hypotenuse just joins the two together.  The tricky part is getting scotch tape to lay down and behave, and then rolling the rifler carefully back across the upside down tape so that it's transferred.  Sight down the tape the full length and look for fairness - no odd bumps or curves - that will mis-guide the rifling cutter (to which this attaches, remember) as it cuts grooves in the barrel.

The beginning chisel cut made carefully down the length of the sharp edge of the red mark.

Use a 1" chisel and try to keep it honest the whole length.  Subsequent grooves are marked out with a divider and likewise cut.

There are photographs of some of this work being done in the Smoky Mountains in the 1920's.  The photos aren't particularly believable - they're set pieces staged for the purpose by photographers during the period when the park was being instituted and many families were being encouraged to find homes elsewhere - sorta like what happened with the Cherokee I suppose.  The photos show an elderly woman wrapping a hickory split around the worm (which would actually give you a pretty fair curve if the split was straight and smooth) and then carving the groove with a pocket knife, which (if you carved 7 grooves) would be my idea of hell on earth.  

She's obviously been splitting a good deal of hickory bottoming chairs - nice straight piece laying in the foreground would make several good wiping sticks (ramrods).  But I really don't think she carved all those grooves with a Barlow knife.  I believe these photos were taken outside to provide better light and more interesting backgrounds.  (Much of the photography of the Smokies was done by WPA photographers working during the Depression, and they already show a society collapsing under the weight of modernity.  We all grumble about the government forcing people off their farms, but truth be told, if the land hadn't become a park it would have all been sold to lumber companies and would today be malls and subdivisions.)

Here you see three rifling machine setups - the one on the left looks to be broken and taken out for the photograph only.  Notice how the two on the left use actual rifle barrels as the rifling "worm" - this is another way to do it - use a barrel to rifle a barrel.  But it's more time consuming to do it this way, and you have to pour a lead slug to ride in the guide barrel, which wears out...the wooden rifling rod on the right is probably better.  It's certainly the technology that was brought from European professional shops to the colonies.  The two machines on the right appear to be complete and functional.

Here it is in actual use.  I think the man in the photo is the investigator who wrote the article - he doesn't look like a mountaineer.  Looks like city people.  But here you see the rifling machine on one end of the long plank "bench", and the barrel being rifled on the right.  Pretty self explanatory.  Very elegant solution to the problem.

Trivia: what two tools were unique to the gunsmithing trade, that were not shared by any other trade?  One was the rifling machine and the other was the "pan drill" or the device that cut the shallow groove in the flintlock pan.  

A very nice dissertation on the longrifle culture on the Smoky Mountains is maintained by the National Park Service, originally published in 1941.  Many other photos.

Monday, September 27, 2010

To continue...

This rifle has the traditional 8 pointed star on the cheekpiece - lovely and ubiquitous.  Well, it can be lovely - it can be badly done too.  This one is a nice piece - a copy of the original.  Pretty straightforward inlay work.  The small acute angles in between the points are of course the thing you look at for quality work.  Have they been chipped off and reglued?  Or are they all in perfect place, denoting nice, slow, poorly paid work?  I didn't chip this inlet, if I remember correctly.  I used sheet silver (pure) instead of the probably more historically correct coin silver, which would have been the typical gunsmith's raw material for most silver inlays.  Coin silver is slightly more yellowish in color, and you learn to look for this.  

Looks naxty!  (with an x)  Lamp black all over the place, hasn't been filed and sanded down yet.  

As if the other view wasn't awful enough.  There's a certain charming honesty about this really nice, delicate inlay being held into the stock with a big wood screw.  He didn't try to hide his tracks - he just screwed it down.  I love it.  No pretensions.  

The vent pick inlay.  It houses (until you lose it in the leaves) a small metal pick to keep the touch hole open.  This rifle is about 1810-20, I believe, and we can see inlays creeping all over the stock, replacing the once common relief carving.  This is an exceptional rifle - it has both wonderful carving and great inlays, but on most of his competition there would have been thin, weak, vestigial carving and more and more inlays, some of them tasteless and graceless.  The old ways and skills, like the old smiths, were dying off.  Tastes were changing.  Even if you bought an expensive piece of furniture, it wouldn't be carved, it would have probably been inlaid with veneer and marquetry.  Things fall apart - the center cannot hold...

Still not too shabby.  He knew his way around a rifle stock, that's for sure.  I sort of lied - the long east/west points on both the star and the vent pick inlay (which, on this gun, does not actually hold a vent pick - it just takes the place where carving used to be done) are held in place by small silver nails.  I didn't try to hide them too well because they're obvious on the original.  Once engraved, these guys will really whistle Yankee Doodle.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Taking a break to show the before and after.  This trigger guard is cast off a wooden master I carved myself because there was nothing available that was suitable.  Castings get smaller and less sophisticated through time it seems - the inevitable result of multiple generations being distanced from their sources which are usually someone's trigger guard they took off their antique rifle back in the 70's and cast copies of it, often for sale through Dixie Gun Works which was about the only game in town for a generation.

Sand castings are cheap and readily available but they're hella work.  As is evident.  Investment casting cost usually at least twice as much but it's a much bigger and more expensive project to get a custom investment casting made.  These were cast at a local sand casting foundry in Chattanooga for just a little more than stuff normally costs through the catalogs.  But I can take them almost anything and they can have ten of them ready in a few days.  I get lots of stuff cast there and making my own masters has really changed how I work.

Here is the master (embedded in a mold board) with two castings of a trigger guard I did based on the Brass Barreled Rifle, which is just a stunning trigger guard.  It's a whopper though, and takes almost an entire working day to bring it from the rough casting to a finished piece ready for mounting.  

The guard on the left you saw earlier.  It's taken from the John Sheetz of Staunton rifle and required a lot of work to get right.  The bow has to be very wide, and all the angles and details are just great.  It's quite versatile though, and with minimal filing can be used on a huge number of guns.  Also visible are two types of sideplates, which I also carved out and had cast.  They look and feel very different from sideplates cut out of sheet.  I've done it both ways and won't go back to sheet if I can help it.  

I intend to set up for home casting in a year or so.  It's a job of work, and dangerous too, but an integral part of the trade and one which (like forging or lock making) must be kept alive in home shops if it's to survive as part of the trade.  The more we buy from catalogs the less we make, the less we learn, the less we can pass on.  The trade doesn't belong to us - we just borrow it from our grandkids.  Just like the rifles.

A rifle - from start to finish

I thought this might be interesting.  A few years ago I built a rifle for a client who wanted me to photograph the process.  I had never done this before, and it wound up being a lot of fun.  Some of the photos didn't turn out as well as I'd hoped, but overall it was a success.

A lot of this is self explanatory, but I'll chime in when it's necessary.  If nothing else, it'll give us a break from cell phone photography.

The barrel goes in - four to five hours of really hard work.  I use a round bottom plane to cut in the main channel of the groove, and take the sides down with a straight chisel.  Places where the corners strike can be taken out of the round groove easily.  As I later found out, this is the method Jack Brooks uses also.  I have tried most of the other methods but nothing works as well as this.

The lock is inlet and the buttplate is on.  Now the main parameters of the stock are in place.

  The basic architecture of the stock can now be worked down.  Extra wood is left for the relief carving behind the cheekpiece.  

The ornate four piece box is roughed out.  The finial and lid are pretty close to being finished, but the hinge has yet to be made (the crux of the job).  Sideplates are chopped out.  Beneath it, the rifle we're copying here.  This was a documentary copy of a rifle by (I want to say) George Eister.  But I might be wrong.  I'll have to look at Kindig to remind myself.  I built a string of these late 18th century/early 19th century guns for clients - Schweizer, Eister, Haeffer...all with big beatiful four piece boxes and several inlays.  Also a great North Carolina gun by Vogler that I actually shipped off without ever photographing.  I still hate that.  It was over the top, and one of my favorite things I ever built.

The sheet metal shop.  Finial and lid to the box, and ramrod pipes in varying stages of completion.  

Smoking in the box.  Finial and lid are together and the hinge is as it should be, so it's time to sour it down.  Tedious work this:  after a couple of hours you want to start driving the box into the stock with a hammer, but you just wind up breaking off vital pieces of wood and deforming the box.  So after a couple of lousy rifles with messed up boxes, you learn to slow down and (like G. Gordon Liddy reccomens) "stop caring that it hurts."

Initial fitting of the side plates of the box.

Right side finished, laying out the left side.  Super fussy work now - all those little acute angles in the brass signify a weak point on the stock inlet - a weak corner that can so easily be broken off and lost forever.  I have spent hours looking for a certain tiny chip of wood that came flying off while inletting.  Do that once or twice and you'll learn the value of slowing down so that you don't make stupid mistakes.  (You only make smart ones.)

Whew...praise the Lord.  Finished.  I don't time (line up) the screw slots on my boxes because I think this is an aesthetic that is inappropriate for most longrifle work.  Perhaps others more knowledgeable than myself have evidence that they did this sort of thing, but I've not seen it.

I'll stop here for now.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Bench update

Final work on the bench - it's basically finished now.  The final skirt board is on (a clear 2x12 from sappy Southern Yellow Pine) and I'll peg it into place in a day or so, then drill the holes for the holdfasts.  I'm going to get at least one pair of holdfasts from Peter Ross, who was master blacksmith at Williamsburg for many years, and has now semi-retired to an idyllic setting in central North Carolina, not far from Roy Underhill's Woodwright's School in Pittsboro.

Here you can see the bench over on its side to make it easier to fiit the skirt board in place while at the same time coordinating the "joist" across the middle.

It's inserted without glue, nails, wedges, or ceremony into each skirt board and is made from an oak 1x5.  Dead simple and dead solid.  You can see how simple the legs are also, and hopefully if you wanted to construct a similar bench you could figure it out from the photos alone.  It ain't rocket surgery, as they say.

Let me encourage you to do this - perhaps not on this scale - but in this style.  Let me encourage you to think of a bench more as a massive, simple table with rudimentary vise hardware, and less of a CAD designed work of art with a geometrically flat top and expensive machined vises and everything pretty enough to be furniture.  I guess if that's what you really want, that's fine, but that's not what this stuff is about, and it's an aesthetic at which our forebears would be amazed - and quite possibly laugh.

I'm going into detail on this bench because I believe it's (1) a tremendously versatile, durable and traditional design and (2) it's dead simple and nothing to get too overly analytical about.  I've alluded to it before, but I believe modern hobby workshops look the way they look (which is a bunch of dangerous machines crammed into a garage) because of a chain of circumstances that the woodworker is confronted with:

1.  You need to crosscut and rip stock to build projects, whether it's a bluebird box or a mahogany highboy.  Whatever else you do, you rip and crosscut first.

2.  You have a handsaw but its probably not set up properly - it's probably not sharp for one thing.  A sharp handsaw will cut through 2" thick oak by virtue of the weight of the blade alone.

3.  Let's say you actually have a handsaw - where are you going to rest your boards while you size your stock?  Chances are you don't have saw horses, or if you do, they're the tall Home Depot kind made to be worked on with circular saws.

4.  Your present workbench is probably covered with tools and miscellanea - cans of paint, boxes of screws, etc. and to clean it off would take an hour.  Then, when you got it cleaned off it would be taller than the saw horses, making it way too tall for proper sawing.

5.  You get confronted with these barriers a few times and you realize "I need a place to cut boards."  So you clear some space between the eight snow tires and the clothes dryer and buy a table saw, because...well, isn't that what you do?  (I mean, Jim has one, and man is it ever nice!)

Back up.  Rethink this.  Clear out some space.  Get rid of stuff - sell stuff - make room.  Build a good solid, simple bench as heavy and as long as you can make it, and up to about the height of your wrist watch.  Yes, that short.  Make a couple of saw horses the height of a chair seat.  Yes, that short.

Now, bingo - you have a place to saw boards!  You have a place to plane boards!  Your handsaw suddenly makes sense, and when you get it back from the guy that sharpens them it cuts through stock so fast it makes you dizzy.  You clamp it down on top of your bench and that short work height makes sense as you're able to lean over your plane and dang how the shavings roll off.  Epiphany.  It dawns on you that THIS STUFF WORKS.

You better believe it works.  A proper bench is the great enabler of so much good work and embodies so much capability. Don't let misconceptions about its construction be a hurdle foisted on you by the perfectionism of others.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

D. Boone - Poet

A Companion for Owls was a lucky find.  I don't read a lot of poetry - I suppose because I think much of it is contrived and superficial.  People who can't write decent prose can crank out what sounds like acceptable poetry, much the way people who can't sculpt a believable human hand can spend all day in the barn with a welder and a bunch of old car parts and suddenly they're sculptors.

The premise is that Boone carried with him a little day book and in it he would occasionally write poetry.  Simple enough.  He was a fairly literate man, and for the day (and his peer group) very well read.  It is known that for many years he carried with him a copy of Gulliver's Travels, reading the amazing, almost psychadelic travel tales by who knows how many lonely camp fires.  Gulliver's adventures among people small enough to dance in his hand must have seemed in some ways no less strange than the odd juxtaposition of his modernity crashing head long into woodland Indian traditions.  I'm sure he often felt as odd and out of place as a man who found himself among a race of super intelligent horses that had developed for themselves language and society and culture.

Boone was a man made famous in his own time, something that didn't happen to dozens of his colleagues, many of whom were more successful, smarter, and probably better woodsmen.  Boone himself was amazed at his fame and said on more than one occasion, basically, "I don't understand the fuss - others did more and better than me.  But whatever."  Living a life pock marked by loneliness and loss, and being of a reading bent, it's no great stretch to imagine him writing poetry.  And A Companion For Owls is woodsman's poetry - simple, sturdy, sinewy.  Dealing with everything from God to getting drunk, to his childhood games with Indians, to his mother speaking to him in Welsh, the pieces meander through his life and work, taking no discernible path, much like he meandered through the mountains, going from salt lick to salt lick, hunting, musing, wandering...would he head back east before winter, or in the spring?  Time to decide that tomorrow...or next week.

At its best, this is amazing stuff.  His ruminations on the death of his son Israel, on finding his body, "with buzzards maddened at his throat, their wings tipped with his blood..." is powerful.  Looking down into Kentucky for the first time, with the hill and valleys laid out before him like a woman's skirts, and so beautiful that his dogs and horses stood mute, is an unforgettable image.  Maurice Manning has a woodsman's sense of hunting, of fire, of rifles...sleeping one night he senses a bear snuffling him.  He lies still and the bear gently turns him over like a log, looking for insects.  He's disgusted with the way that the Indians are treated when William Henry Harrison defeats the last band of Shawnee in 1811and inscribes on a tree: "Old Tippecanoe can goe to hell."

At the end of the volume, he draws a map of heaven, one corner of which is marked with strange crooked X's - this marks the spot "where all old longrifles go to be buried."  Hard not to get misty over that.

Monday, September 13, 2010


Asphaltum is petroleum tar.  It is a deep, wickedly dark brown color - about the color of coffee so strong it stinks.  Gary Brumfield, past master of the restored gunsmith shop at Colonial Williamsburg, has been something of a champion for using asphaltum as a stain for curly maple.  The traditional staining technique is of course dilute nitric acid, with iron mixed in, making a horrid poisonous reddish mud that you paint on the stock, heat with something like a bar of iron heated red hot, at which point the acid soaked wood turns a glorious reddish brown.  The curl in the wood has great clarity and vibrancy (the actual word for this dancing curly maple figure is "chatoyancy", I kid you not...) and it's well documented as being the standard staining method time and again in period sources.

But there are other ways.  I am going to research the documentation on asphaltum, but in this simple photo you can see the piece of maple scrap really jumps out.  The color is more brown than the red-brown typically seen with nitric, but then I've gotten this same color before using acid, so it's a bit of a crap shoot.  Part of the fun.

Although asphaltum will dry hard, I will follow tradition and use a beeswax finish on top.  This makes a really tough, waterproof finish.

Just a quick pic - I'll post more when I finish the rifle.  Notice there is no visible curl in the wood because the sun is bleaching it out, but the asphaltum really makes it stand out.

Quick look at my own rifle

I don't have a rifle of my own.  I know, it's a hard world.  I've built two for myself - the first built long ago I became disgusted with and disassembled for parts, and the second I sold, but it was a .58 caliber and I felt like I was feeding a cannon after a while.

So I am building a rifle for myself that is not for sale, period.  It's related to the Brass Barreled Rifle, famed in song and story, and a gun that I at first thought was just weird looking but now cannot get enough of.  "I look at it long and long," as the poet says.

The castings are my own work, from my own wooden masters.  Chambers Early Ketland lock.  Simple brass box with a single silver disc in it.  Don't ask me why - it just seemed right at the moment.  I'm going to stain it with asphaltum and will probably finish it with beeswax and turpentine - a really tough finish, for all weather use in hard conditions.  I'll post more photos when it's done.

Seen here in the buff, with no buttpiece on.  I just like the way the architecture looks in this shot.  I think we're gonna be good friends.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Planing hook

a'la Roubo...using both sides of my bench enables me to use a planing hook as illustrated in the original documents.  One thing I've noticed: most of the modern interpretations of the planing hook do not try to make it look like the original.  To me this is heresy - the original shape of the hook is quite plainly shown in the original engraving.  It has a long bearing surface for maximum bolting/pegging area, for rock solid stability, and short, steep shallow angle hook area because that's all you need.  It seems people want to get uppity and go changing things.

Let the word go out from this time and place: You generally cannot improve this stuff, you can only modernize it.  To wit:

This is by far the most common form of planing hook I see when I look at modern Roubo interpretations.  Notice that the parameters have flip flopped: you have now a short area for the mating surface (hook to bench) and a long, shallow hook.  This is exactly the opposite of the original.  And why is that wrong?  Because what you've done is very effectively reduce the hook's ability to stay attached to the bench while at the same time dramatically increasing the power that the planed board has to rip it off.  By making the hook shallow you allow the board to "get under" the hook and lift it out - perpetually out - with every stroke of the plane - against whatever tiny little bolts will be crammed into that small mating area.

Part of what's going on here is that this hook form is often coupled with a face vice - they're depending on the vise to do the bulk of the holding and the hook is just there to help out.  To each his own, but I think there are better ways to skin this particular cat.

This is as the original was drawn:

A long mating surface for glue/pegs/bolts/whatever to hold this thing onto the bench for, oh let's say maybe 200 years, and a short steep hook angle so that the planed board doesn't get under the hook so much as slam into it head-on...a direction of force which is much easier to counteract.

The old stuff isn't the way it is for no reason.  These people weren't bored hobbyists.  This stuff fed their families and kept them out of debtor's prison.  It had to be right.  It had to make sense.  It had to work.  (If it seems like I get worked up about this stuff it's probably just because I get worked up about this stuff.)

So anyway, I free-handed a little swoop onto a piece of oak scrap (it even had a nice S curve in the grain that nearly followed the profile, so much the better.)  I cut it out and dressed it up a little.

I decided that I would hold it on with three lag bolts (I had acres of room to bolt it to the bench - my options were limitless...see how this stuff works?) and would orient two of them at an angle away from the direction of planing, so that the force of planing would push the hook on the long axis of the bolts rather than at right angles.  The middle bolt would just be perpendicular.

Countersunk heads, lag bolts with washers.  Notice the front and rear holes are at angles to the middle one.  There would be no way to accomplish this much holding power if I used the modern permutation of the planing hook.

And "soured down" as we say, it was the veritable Rock of Gibraltar.  I slapped on some BLO so it matched the rest of the real estate.


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Installing the vise garter

Okay, bear with the photography.  I'm going to get a good camera for Christmas.

I was dreading completing the last task of making the vise for the bench, that of installing the internal wedge garter that locks into a groove on the top of the screw, so that when you back off on the screw, the vise chop automatically moves out with it.  I believe most ready made wooden vise screws now come made so that you purchase a nice brass garter, or two halves of a brass ring, that will screw right to the face of the vise chop.  But I bought my screw (I actually bought a pair) more than ten years ago, from an old gentleman who was, as far as I could tell, the only person in the country still making them.

His screw was made with a groove for a wedge - an internal, not an external garter.  This wouldn't be any big deal, except this requires you to drill and chisel and file out a mortise deep into the oak chop of the vise.  The mortise has to be precise - it has to wind up in exactly the right place, and with its inserted garter/wedge, must be a precision affair, locking with a smooth but play-free fit to give the vise a secure action.  There are lots of ways to weasel out of the job.  You could just drill in and put a dowel in there, for instance.  I saw a photo once of a garter that was a brass bolt that screws in from the side, and on its end is a nylon roller bearing that fits the groove...blah blah blah.  Which just proves that there are some people who will fine a machine shop solution to any and every conceivable problem.

Laying out the location of the mortise.

No doubt about it, I needed a proper hardwood wedge in a proper mortise.  I chose ebony, as I always have several pieces laying around, and once you start working with ebony, you will find excuses to use it.  It's wonderful stuff.

Using a marking gauge to lay off the thickness I need:

I just had to drill two 3/8" holes about 8" - 10" deep through the side of my vise chop, and have them intersect with the screw groove at exactly the right depth, and in the right place fore and aft so that the wedge would ride smoothly without binding.  You can see why I put this job off.

But, while waiting for some shellac to dry, I just tore into it.  First I measured the groove and started orienting in my mind how it would all go together.  I much preferred an internal mortise and wedge to a face garter - it's simpler and more traditional, and I can make it and repair it myself without having to buy expensive hardware.

At some point I couldn't put it off any longer, and I had to drill.  I don't know why but I chose to drill the top of the two holes (that would later be worked into a rectangular mortise) and it felt really right.  No way to know, though - it is too high up in the chop to enter into the 2" diameter screw hole.

Once that was done I did The Nasty - the actual hole that would cut into the screw hole and form the most important part of the work - the floor on which the wedge would rest as it intersected with the vise screw.

And it worked.  I can't carry a tune in a bucket, but I can drill a hole.  It wound up right where I wanted it.  My heart soared like the hawk.  All that remained was about an hour of chisel and rasp work.  Luckily I had a 3/8" square rasp (a tool I almost never use) and it did the trick.

And after some fussing and fitting, it all came together.  Good smooth action, full engagement into the groove, and solid glossy ebony that will probably not wear out in my lifetime.  I took my stub of a candle and greased everything up and the action in and out was super.  Some decorative file work on the wedge capped it off.

So the vise is finished.  Next job is the Roubo planing hook.