Compass planes

Compass planes

I’ve been testing curves for back slats recently. That’s meant a lot of time with my compass plane making bending forms. That plane is a chatterbox. It’s in its nature. There are so many light, movable parts only partially attached to each other that it’s a wonder the thing can stay quiet at all.

Roughing in the curve with spokeshaves

Most plane makers go to great lengths to make their tools out of heavy, solid lumps of stuff. It keeps the chatter to a minimum. Compass planes are not built the same way.

The handles on my straight spokeshave show a lot more wear than on the round-bottomed tool. You can get quite a lot of curve before you need the curved sole.
Cambered iron

But there are things you can do. Starting with low expectations helps!

I used to think of my Record 020 as a jack plane. I expected it to do a lot of work quite quickly and give me a decent result. These days I see it more like a jointer plane. I use it for the last few shavings to get the final shape. The curve comes from a bandsaw, jigsaw or bowsaw followed by spokeshaves. They are my jack planes for curves.

As with all edge tools start with the sharpest iron you can hone. It won’t solve everything but at least you’ll know that’s not one of the issues. Grind and hone it like a jointer plane iron – with a small camber. Rather than trying to take a full width shaving I work the high spots and check for square frequently. I don’t expect to get beautiful long ribbons from end to end. Given that we’re making a curve the grain direction will change at some point and these things don’t go up hill!

The mouth and bed aren’t flush. Not ideal but it works.

If you’ve got a sharp, cambered iron, lightly set, you’re cutting downhill and you’re still getting chatter there are a couple of things worth investigating. The mouth of the plane is a magnet for resin. It builds up and needs to be scraped out. There’s little you can do about the step between the mouth and the frog. The frog has no fore and aft adjustment. I’ve tried shimming it with mylar and sheets of tin foil. Not worth the effort. Make sure that the cap iron fits well and the lever cap is tight.

With the mouth clean have a look at the peened pins that hold the frog to the sole. With the sole set for a concave curve these can stick out and catch. You won’t notice it when planing but it can’t help the chatter. You can sand the sole much as you might lap a smoothing plane. I didn’t notice a lot of difference but it can’t hurt.

And finally, with the plane perfectly set up a squiggle of wax on that rather rough sole makes the world of difference.

Not the most satisfying shavings but it’s the curve we’re interested in
Sharpening a router plane iron

Sharpening a router plane iron

I just watched a video by Vic Teselin and Fine Woodworking on sharpening a router plane blade. I do it differently and thought I’d stick my oar in.

‘My method’ (I’m sure others do it the same way and have done for longer) reduces the strength of the iron a bit though I’m not sure it matters much. But it’s everso easy and doesn’t require jigs or sanding drums. Vic sharpens the upper part of the iron which is probably the manufacturers’ intention. I don’t. Sorry manufacturers.

Sharpening seems to be very contentious so just for the record: I don’t mind if you don’t do it this way. I don’t want you to change if you like your way. I’m not a terrible person because I do it this way and I’m happy to concede that your way may be just as good if not better. Has that covered everything?



If you follow me on Instagram you’ll know that I’m building a Moravian workbench. I’m not writing about it here because it’s been so well covered by Will Myers in his step-by-step guide on and his video with Joshua Farnsworth.

I will be writing about the end vice I’m building which might be useful to those who haven’t yet fitted a vicious toothed planing stop and doe’s foot to their bench.

Checking for flat
Planes come with a built-in reference edge


Yesterday I was at Richard Arnold’s open day and listened to Oli Sparks talking about flattening the ways on his milling machine. He does this by hand marking the high spots using machinist’s dye and a very flat reference plate.

I have been struggling to find a way to measure the flatness of my workbench top end to end. Checking for wind and flatness side to side is easy.



That’s straight enough for a six foot bench!

But other than squinting I have no way to check flat along the length of the bench. On the drive home yesterday inspiration struck. A piece of string, pulled taught will let me see hollow and humps. When I was fishing out a crayon to mark the spots shown by the string I found my chalk line. Even better. Pulled taught and dragged across the bench this showed up the humps very quickly.




With the humps nicely coloured in I could flatten them out. I was a bit worried that I was making a rod for my own back. How flat does a workbench need to be? (That’s a rhetorical question – I’m happy with my own answer!) The chalk line quickly revealed that the ends were high. With a bit of planing I started to see the humps in the middle.


Plane until the blue has gone

I often find myself chasing my tail when flattening long wide pieces. I go too far on one section and then have to level the rest to it. With this method I did a lot less planing and a lot more checking (which is considerably less tiring!).

Once the big humps had disappeared and the chalk line was just colouring the whole bench blue I switched from the scrub to the jointer plane and made a couple more passes until the blue had disappeared. You’ve got to be sure that you’ve got the thickness to carry on planing once the humps have gone because that chalk gets everywhere and you’re going to need a final pass to get rid of it. On a 4 inch workbench top that’s not really a problem.


Caveat: the blue gets stuck in the tearout. But this is workbench, not a piano.

Clamp front chest 7: the spreadsheet!

Clamp front chest 7: the spreadsheet!

The consumer may assume their consumption pattern sets them apart from the rest of society, marking them as an individual, but this is a fallacy. Consumption is one of our most creative and most restrictive practices. Due to this fact it must be concluded that consumer driven production of self is less to do with “who am I” and more with “who are we” or “with whom do I belong.” There is no such thing as individualization no matter what we may think.

Todd, D. 2012

 I don’t like cutting lists. Many amateurs, myself included, work wood to have something individual, something that says something about us (who knows what?). Building from a cutting list or a set of plans in a book or magazine gives us the illusion of creativity. But that creativity is restricted by the choice available.
Ultimately we are building someone else’s design. What kind of individualism is this that we conform to someone else’s notion of individualism?
But what is the alternative? A thorough grounding in the principles of design? Will this liberate us from the “restrictive practices” of buying furniture from the multinational corporation or building it to the designs laid out by other woodworkers? Or are we then just subject to the same set of principles by which they operate?
Let’s break free from the cutting list!
And how shall we throw off the shackles of our corporate overlords? With a spreadsheet of course!

This spreadsheet will enable you to enter dimensions for a clamp front chest of your own ‘design’. You might not be able to enter your desired dimension into the embedded sheet above (it’s a little temperamental).  If you want to try it out click here to go to the full, unabridged Google Sheets version.

If the figures you enter are changing it’s because someone else is using it. If you want to keep your own dimensions use the link above and download the spreadsheet (File/Download as…) or open a copy in Google Sheets (File/Make a copy…).

You can select the outside dimensions of the chest you want to build, decide if you want to make clamped (breadboard) ends for your lid and choose the length of the legs in relation to the rest of the chest. As you enter this data the spreadsheet will work out your cut list and spit it out in an easily digested table. Voila, instant liberation from the strictures of design dogma and the restrictions on your identity of consumer culture. You lucky thing.

But it won’t draw it for you.

Bear in mind that the spreadsheet doesn’t care about proportion or aesthetics. It has some concept of the required thickness of planking for different sized chests but it’s not very bright (I shouldn’t anthropomorphise my spreadsheets, they hate that). Magazine writers/woodworkers are better at this sort of thing than spreadsheets (there’s feint praise!).

Caveat utilitor

I don’t guarantee the results of this spreadsheet in any way. If you use it to design a series of chests to sell from your burgeoning Etsy store and have several cubic metres of timber cut to length only to discover that the I haven’t calculated the tenon length correctly or included the lid overhang it’s entirely on you.

Last word

Please don’t use this. Draw a chest using your own hands and eyes. It will be better and it will be yours.

But if you do use it please let me know how it goes!


The Workbench

The Workbench

“After a while you can get used to anything.” Albert Camus, The Stranger

I’m thinking of rickety workbenches, not being incarcerated in an Algerian prison for murder, but you take the point: I have a high tolerance for ropey workbenches.
But I’ve finally been jolted into building a better bench. I’d like to extend the Camus analogy by making a parallel between my passive acceptance of the wobblyness of my bench and Meursault’s sleep-walk towards his own execution but that would require me to draw a link between him waking from his ennui by shouting at a priest delivering his last rights and my own renaissance. My shame was far more twenty-first century: flamed on YouTube for a shaky bench. Twice. It’s amazing what people can get cross about.
So before I launch into this timber framing project let’s take a look at what led up to it. It started here:


Dad likes Workmates so much that he owns two. And modifies them. He had a blue one when we were kids. I wonder what happened to it. We did a lot of work on that bench.

Picnic bench

This isn’t the one we used. It didn’t survive the abuse.

Despite the Workmate a lot of my early woodworking was done on a picnic table. They make surprisingly good workbenches. The seats are at the perfect height for breaking down stock with a hand saw and the table-top has gaps between every slat. On some tables these are big enough for clamp. If you’re careful you can line the gaps up with the circular saw kerf. If you’re not you learn how to repair picnic tables.

Short of a decent vice what’s not to like? Some are a bit wobbly and perhaps that’s where my existential malaise started.
At school, like every child of my generation, I used the standard British joiners’ bench. One vice, a tool well and a brush. Sweeping up was as much a part of woodwork classes as learning to saw straight. It was here that I learnt to love tool wells. And sweeping.

Sawhorse workbench

Camus notwithstanding I never got used to the Japanese saw (it doesn’t help that it doesn’t match the bench hook) and my tolerance for these two terrible squares didn’t last longer than this project.

As an adult with limited storage space I went back to the Workmate but as projects got bigger space remained tight and I built a sawhorse workbench: two strips of plywood bolted to sawhorses with insert nuts in the tops. This was surprisingly robust; it barely moved. I put this down to the number of legs. But it still didn’t have a vice or any decent workholding other than clamps. So I built a ‘lightweight’ folding bench. Originally it had a crochet and no vice. (There are proponents of viceless woodworking out there: people who encourage beginners to take up a craft with one hand tied behind their backs. I have bad words for them.) So after a few years I installed a massive Record 53 on the front of my lightweight bench. This led to the hole in the workshop floor and the floorboard repair I did last year.



Matriphagy is not uncommon with workbenches.

During my last project I spent quite a bit of time thinking about how I used the bench and what I wanted to keep and change.




Tool tray

I like my tools on the bench, not the floor. Wells and trays fill up with shavings, reduce the usable space on your bench and allow bad habits to form but I don’t care. I like them and I’m sticking with them.


 Holdfasts and holes

All holes will be round, or more accurately, cylindrical. With astonishing timing Simon James decided to start making 1″ holdfasts at a sensible price when I bought the timber for the bench. I’ve been using the late Richard Tomes’ 3/4″ holdfasts for several years and if Simon James’ version are as good I’ll be delighted. They are absolutely massive and won’t need much of a tap to set them solidly.


Tail vice

I use a Veritas inset vice and bench dogs. It’s slow but excellent value and with a clever two position dog. I’m sure a batten and toothed stop work but one can grow used to luxury as well as privation and my next end vice will bigger and better.


More on this later.



Never been used


I only use one of the holes on the apron a lot and it will be in the leg of my next bench. The others are largely redundant. I used them more before I installed the vice.






The old bench is starting to feel a bit emasculated


Colin Chapman said “Simplify, then add lightness.” But he was building things to move – quickly. Two inches of ash aren’t enough to stop a bench roaming around the workshop. The legs will be four times the cross sectional area and the top twice as thick.


I’ve been procrastinating about this for years. I wanted something very heavy but portable. Hard to achieve.

I do occasional demonstrations but most of my itinerant woodwork has been done at the boatyard. For several years I thought I’d build a massive French bench with wheels and floor locks. Then I realised that although I could get it out of the workshop, across the garden and through the kitchen it would never turn the corner in the hallway of our Victorian terrace (row house).
Then Will Myers published a terrific account of building his Moravian workbench. It’s been on my list for a while and I’ve finally got a gap between projects. It has everything I want: weight, portability, a tool tray and great workholding.
Will built his from white pine. I’m making my life more difficult (and expensive) by using oak. But it adds weight and weight is good.
I have an idea for a pair of wheels that fit on an axle that passes through a dog hole. This should make the four inch laminated top a bit more mobile.

I’ve glued up one set of legs. Eventually it will have two sets: high and low, carving and joinery. Don’t hold your breath; it’s a big project. But waiting is something you can get used to.



Medieval woodworking part 5: pole lathe

Medieval woodworking part 5: pole lathe

No demonstration of medieval woodworking would be complete without a pole lathe.

I have spent quite a lot of hours this summer building an adapted version of Roy Underhill’s double spring pole lathe. It’s by no means medieval but it demonstrates the concept. And it doesn’t require a 20′ long sapling.

Yesterday was the culmination of the work I have been doing. I spent several happy hours demonstrating joinery and pole lathe turning at Fen Ditton 800. It was an exceptionally successful, well-organised and enjoyable event and I was delighted by the reception my little stand got.


While I was setting up a gentleman in his seventies arrived and started asking a lot of very astute questions. It became clear that he had been a joiner for most of his working life and he was delighted to see someone working with hand tools. We spent about fifteen minutes talking about his career, the huge workshop he had spent much of his adult life in and, inevitably, the decline of crafts and trades in the U.K. He set the tone for the day: interested, insightful people testing and extending my knowledge in the nicest way possible.


Medieval woodworking part 4: plank chest 2

Medieval woodworking part 4: plank chest 2

My nearest and dearest tell me that I have a lot of tools (they’re too polite to say “too many”). Each one, I say in my defence, has a purpose. No two are identical.

However there’s no doubt that there is some redundancy in the ranks. ‘Efficiency savings’ could be made. Some are more flexible than others. Chisels, for example can do a host of different tasks but require more skill to do some of those tasks well. Other tools perform only one task but they’re easier to use. Let’s take cutting a housing (dado if you’re American) as an example:

  1. Knife two parallel lines, chisel a wall to guide a saw, saw to depth, chisel out the waste (using a mallet), use a router plane to level the bottom. Six tools, one of which probably didn’t exist in medieval times.
  2. Clamp or nail a batten across the board. Use a dedicated dado plane to depth. Only two tools (if you don’t count the batten) but the clamps and dado plane are relatively recent inventions. The dado plane is about as dedicated a tool as you’ll find. It just cuts housings. At a specific width. Not adjustable.
  3. Clamp or nail a batten across the board. Spend half an hour setting up an electric router. Spend ten minutes finding and putting on protective clothing (mask, goggles, ear defenders, chainsaw trousers). Spend 30 seconds in abject, gibbering terror cutting the housing. Have a cup of weak tea while you recover.
  4. Get good with a chisel. ‘Knife’ the lines with the chisel, chop out the waste with the chisel. Level the bottom with the chisel.

IMG_3081I had two housings to cut. If this were not a masochistic act of reenactment and I were using a milder wood than oak I would have taken option 2. In the spirit of the thing I tried to only use tools I have evidence for having existed at the time. Option 4 it is.

Oddly I didn’t take a photograph of the result. It works but it’s not pretty.

Here’s the start of the second housing using option 1. I convinced myself that a plane, as they say, is just a chisel in a jig. Any idiot can find a video of Paul Sellers making a router plane with a block of wood, a chisel and a wedge on YouTube. What’s that you say? They didn’t have YouTube in the thirteenth century? Arrant pedantry.

With four rebates to cut I tried the chisel method again. This is easier than the housings. It’s a lot like cutting half blind dovetails but without the worry about nice crisp tails. I did even it up with a shoulder plane. And then used a moving fillister for the other three.

IMG_3101I marked the semi-circles for the feet with a pair of compasses. All period-correct so far. I’ve seen evidence of bow saws from the period but not a turning saw as such so I decided to see if I could form them with a saw, chisels and gouge. Kerfing went swiftly. Chiselling the waste out was quick as well. Fortunately I have a very large carving gouge at a fractionally quicker sweep than the chosen curve. Again – very straightforward.IMG_3116 I don’t think that a turning saw would have saved me a great deal of time and I’m much more confident with a gouge than a thin blade in 3/4″ of oak.

I did cheat a little bit and chamfered one curve with a spokeshave. The other I did with a chisel.

The only joinery left was to peg it all together. At this point I gained a lot of respect for the medieval joiner. The rebates on the ends of the front and back panels are there to help when assembling.


Tight when made but worked a little looser by the time the chest was assembled.

Nevertheless unless the boards are dead flat and the rebates dead square putting this together without clamps would be next to impossible. I spent a lot of time with shoulder planes fettling every joint. A modern woodworker with good glues and a rack of clamps would pull a half millimetre gap closed and drive home a fastening, content in the knowledge that it wouldn’t show its seams before the customer got it home. The medieval craftsman had to get the joints perfect just to be able to drill the holes for the pegs. Some antique dealers use the word “primitive” to describe pre-industrial furniture with little ornamentation. One should earn the right to use that word about someone else’s work.

Sat astride my low workbench, the boards resting against pegs and being held by my knees I managed to drill a couple of holes. With a dowel at each end of the board holding it fast the others went in more easily. With a now-familiar sigh of relief I went back to my joiner’s bench and my clamps for the other three ends.

There’s surprisingly little joinery in a six board chest. With a jointer, thickness planer and a dado stack in a table saw (I wonder if the dado stack will be legalised in the U.K. Post-Bexit?) I imagine it would take less than an afternoon. For the pre-industrial craftsman with a frame saw, chisel, mallet and auger it’s a somewhat greater endeavour.

With the edges chamfered and the rougher grain scraped I put on some finish. The use of linseed oil was widespread in this period but its use on furniture is, as far as I know, undocumented. In the C12th Theophilus1 wrote in his treatise for artists that using linseed oil on wood is ‘tedious’. Boiling linseed oil to speed up polymerisation was known in the Middle Ages, as was adding lead to do the same thing, but Theophilus was apparently using it raw.

1. Theophilus (C12th) On divers arts Republished by Dover Art Instruction (2000)