Marking time on tools
What’s in a ballet shoe
In the course of some work I have been doing lately, I have been seeing a lot of railway sleepers. I can’t look at them without thinking about the work of cutting, carting and installing them.
In Sheffield (once the great centre of cutlery manufacture) the person who assembles and adjusts scissors is called a putter-together, sometimes putter-togetherer, often shortened to putter. It takes years to develop the skill and judgment to do this job really well.
In this video we see Cliff Denton at work. He is a putter at Ernest Wright & Sons Ltd, one of the few Sheffield businesses that still makes high quality scissors in the traditional way.
John Smeaton, on working solo
I am committed to Continuing Professional Development. I try to keep up with the current technical literature. Just now, reminded by John Smeaton’s birthday, I have been re-reading his account of the design and building of the third Eddystone Lighthouse. It’s a big book, full of fascinating detail. He wrote it at the end of his long career, as he looked back on his most celebrated project.
He explains why he chose to work on his own during the early stages of his work. He was stuck in London between meetings with various important people, as he grappled with the problem of securing the lighthouse tower to the wave-swept rock:
One of the best things about the recent refurbishment of the Brisbane City Hall is the new accommodation for the Museum of Brisbane. The museum is up on the roof of the building, hidden neatly behind the parapet, with views of the central dome.
More about sawyers»more»
A sawyer’s no robber
I have been working on a project at Fairview, a farm house near Maleny. The house was built around 1907 for Emily and John Robert Pattemore by their four sons. They felled the trees (with an axe and cross-cut saw), cut the logs to length (with a cross-cut saw), ripped them into boards (with a pit-saw), seasoned the boards (stacked criss-cross on a trestle), then planed and moulded the boards (with hand planes). Then they built the house in the usual way. It adds up to a vast amount of hand labour. That’s the bad news.
Now the good news. In the scrub—soon to be cleared to make way for cattle pasture—were enough white beech trees to build the house. White beech (gmelina leichhardtii) is a rainforest hardwood that saws easily, and is buttery smooth to plane by hand. The old timber handbooks recommended it for planking boats, for pattern-making, and called it the premier carving timber in Queensland.»more»
Ten digital years
I got my first digital camera ten years ago, and since then I have acquired several others. Who am I kidding. The true number is not several, it’s ten. Let me explain…»more»
Making rasps and rifflers
I have some cabinetmaker’s rasps in my kit, but they are the common machine-made kind. I have never used a hand-made rasp. Perhaps I should.
Rasps and rifflers are still made by hand in the old way by a few small manufacturers, like Forge de Saint Juery. The video below shows how much skilled handwork goes into making these tools, which explains why they are rather expensive. To justify the cost, it is claimed that hand stitched rasps work better and cut smoother than the machine made ones, as Chris Schwarz explains»more»
The saw maker
It’s a fine thing to see, in this video from the Institute of Backyard Studies, that you can still have a racing cross cut saw made by hand in Australia. This delightful documentary is one of a series about people carrying on rare trades—the others show a shoemaker, a coachbuilder, a milliner, a painter of scrollwork, a dry stone waller, a stonemason, a tinsmith, and a bookbinder.»more»
Uses for a mobile phone
In my little box of 19th century prints is a steel engraving of a drawing by Thomas Allom of the interior of the Panthéon in Paris. It’s not especially rare or valuable, but I like it for the quality of the print and the connection with my former architectural partner Richard Allom (distantly related to Thomas).
I wanted to ‘re-photograph’ the scene that Thomas Allom drew, so I needed a copy for reference. A google search turned up a print-dealer’s online catalog with an image of the Panthéon print, which I copied to my phone. With this in my hand, I found the right spot to stand. I can vouch for the general accuracy of the drawing, with a proviso. I think it is based on a properly set-up perspective drawing, but using a point of view outside the building—impossible, in other words, because this view is blocked by the front wall of the building.
With my widest lens (Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L on EOS 5D), and with my back against the wall, I could not get all the parts of the ceiling that Allom showed into the picture. Not, that is, unless I tipped the camera up and caused the columns to topple, and that would never do.»more»
Bill Blair, trug maker
I was in New Zealand last week studying Oamaru’s wonderful Victorian limestone buildings. Beside the harbour I found Bill Blair. In an old tin shed he makes wooden rakes, pitch forks, grain shovels, firewood carriers and other products of woodland hand craft. His best-selling item is the Sussex trug, a type of wooden basket which he makes in a range of sizes. I bought one as a gift for my long-suffering partner Margie, who I had left holding the fort while I enjoyed this solo sabbatical.»more»
Found on Wikipedia Commons, this beautiful woodcut of Japanese sawyers cutting some heroic planks. Neither of the sawyers, nor the saw doctor, have time to enjoy the view of Mount Fuji, but their lady companions might. I recommend following the link to the high resolution version.»more»
The Stonehill Industrial Heritage Center at Stonehill College, Massachusetts, holds a vast archive of documents and objects about the shovel-making enterprises of the Ames family in the 19th and 20th centuries. The collection includes 755 shovels—something Eric Olthwaite could only dream of.»more»
Note to self: The trials of Eric Olthwaite is available on YouTube.»more»
The well-dressed mower
Among the accessories offered by the Scythe Supply Co (Maine, USA) is this cow horn whetstone holder. Not keeping your scythe sharp is the way to frustration. Tradition (and good sense) dictates that you carry a sharpening stone in a holder on your belt, and stop from time to time to touch up the edge. If you find a galvanised steel holder too plain, and a plastic one too gauche, consider this alternative. As the blurb says:
It will make a marvelous accent to your mowing costume. A frivolity, but a pretty one. You will be the envy of your mowing friends.»more»
The Swedish Axe Throwing Society organises an annual championship competition, as I learned from the excellent website of Gränsfors Bruks AB, makers of hand forged axes.»more»
Houses on permafrost
Today I collected my Nikon LS-30 film scanner which has been away at the repair shop. Here’s the technician’s report:
Dismantle, Inspect & Test, Disassemble circuit modules, Service scan mechanism, Replace scan and A.F. stepper motors, Service Parts As Necessary Clean optical unit, Checked All Modes, Adjust and Calibrate, Reassemble And Test All Functions.
After all that, it should be as good as new. But it’s not.
Puzzling through the diagrams and descriptions of knots in a book may be good for my mental fitness, but Alan Folsom’s animations make the whole thing easier to grasp.»more»
Knocking off time
In a post to the oldtools mailing list, Jeff Gorman explained the origin of ‘knocking off time’:
In case you might just want to know, the expression derives from coalmining when at the end of the shift, the miner inverts his pick and thumps the shaft end on the ground to release the head.»more»
According to a mention in Garrison Keillor’s writer’s almanac, today is the birthday of Melvil Dewey.
This prompted me to look at the middens of paper around me, and think about Dewey’s invention of the vertical filing cabinet. Thinking turned into procrastination. Instead of putting those papers into those filing cabinets, I turned to Google. I found this book review: The social life of paper. Also see the short biographical entries in the Columbia encyclopedia and Wikipedia.
Robotic lumberjacks under water»more»
Making a split cane fly rod
I know nothing of fly fishing, but I enjoyed Thomas Penrose’s description of making a rod. Like a violin maker, Penrose carefully selects his materials, precisely shapes and assembles them with hand tools, and makes an instrument of delight.»more»
Making a violin
A violin is one of the most subtle and wonderful artefacts that can be made of wood. The best violins are still made using tools and materials that were familiar to Giuseppe Guarneri (1698-1744) or Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737). I enjoyed Derek Roberts’s step-by-step description of making a violin.»more»
Swedish hunting backpack»more»
Message from Alaska
For recreation I read a mailing list devoted to old woodworking tools. There is constant banter about hand-forged chisels, the shapes of saw handles, infill planes, tool patents, and many other subjects. The members are almost all men, and mostly in the older age bracket. The discourse is helpful, erudite, relaxed and polite. Nobody swears or insults anyone.
This is a quirky crowd, and I enjoy visiting workbenches and toolchests all over the world. Some messages take me right away from the places I know. Like this one from Phil Koontz in outback Alaska, headed ‘That ol’ commute’:»more»
Mobiles and the appropriation of place
Cultural anthropolist Mizuko Ito has written an article about the way mobile phones are changing the experience of being together for young Japanese people:»more»
Acme whistles have been made by J Hudson and Co (Whistles) Ltd of Birmingham since the 1880s. Their range of police whistles, thunderers, sirens, bosun’s whistles, orchestral whistles, silent dog whistles and marine whistles is displayed on their website.»more»
Stopping the Kodak Carousel
I have seen this message posted to various internet mailing lists:
Eastman Kodak Company has confirmed plans to discontinue the manufacture and sales of slide projection products and accessories in June of 2004. This early disclosure is being made to key user groups in order to allow time for adoption of a replacement technology or purchase of backup slide projector products.
A business that hypes itself as an exclusive purveyor of quality Japanese tools offers a set of Akio Tasai’s chu totsu mokume shiage chisels with aromatic sandalwood handles.»more»
Tool patents online
Some of my cheerful companions on the OldTools mailing list have helped to build the Directory of American Tool and Machinery Patents. This is a searchable database that opens the historical records of the US Patents Office. Here you’ll find patent specifications for great leaps in American tool design (like Justus Traut’s 1888 plane iron lateral adjuster, used ever since by the Stanley company), and for thousands of smaller steps forward.»more»
Another toaster museum»more»
Sally made this at pre-school. Beer bottle caps and slices of champagne bottle cork nailed to a piece of pine. She told me “It’s woodwork, Daddy”.»more»
Collecting saw handles
As a harmless distraction from war and mayhem, consider the aesthetic merits of saw handles. Like this one — the beech handle of a nineteenth century dovetail saw made by Thos Turner & Co, of Sheffield.»more»
The things you find on the web. A range of tartan-free kilts, including this one:
A multi-functional kilt designed for working men. Extra pockets and a modesty snap between legs. Two exterior rear pockets. Two side mount saddle pockets, with “the Grip” retractable side hammer loop and front key loop. Patent Pending Wallet Grip rear pocket. Right side scraper/pencil pocket, heavy duty rivets at all major pocket stress points. 12 ounce Duc cloth. Fully pleated from bottom to top. Available in Neo-Traditional closure method only.»more»
Briarpress.org has a delicious online museum. Dozens of virtual printing presses are here, richly linked and organised, displayed with other tools of the trade. And there is an illustrated glossary of letterpress terms—handy if you don’t know your frisket from your tympan. I admire the clarity of words, pictures and navigation. My congratulations to Eric Nevin and the other authors.»more»
The look of tool chests can tell us much about workers and workplaces. While their purpose is to organize, carry, and protect tools, these chests also suggest what workers think of themselves and how society measures the value of their work.
See this online exhibition of tool chests on display at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. See the portable tool kits of various occupations: cabinetmaker, circumciser, farrier, gentleman woodworker, machinist, needleworker, piano maker, shoe shiner, office machine technician, uphosterer, and urologist. The oldest dates from the 1810s (cabinetmaker's chest), and the newest from the 1990s (technician's tool case).
James Surowiecki has written a history lesson about technological standardisation for Wired. He claims that standards have had large economic and technological effects. OK, I agree. But he gives too much credit to just one man, William Sellers, who he calls a legend and the finest tool builder of his time.»more»
The mortar and pestle
Janet Fletcher has written in the San Francisco Chronicle praising the mortar. It’s a well written piece, with delightful photographs of a selection of mortars. According to SauteWednesday it won a 2002 James Beard Foundation journalism award:»more»
A new Leica
The Leica company has just announced a new M-series camera. The M7 is a descendent of the M3 of 1954, the first Leica rangefinder camera with a bayonet lens mount. Details are on the Leica website, or see this review by Irwin Puts.»more»
Making a birch sled
Tucked away in a story about the 2002 Iditarod trail sled dog race is this description of a traditional Alaskan dog sled:»more»
The right tool for the job
If you ever need to escape from a car with disabled electric windows, you’d better have an automatic centre punch with you. Get one now for the glove box.»more»
Ratbag of note: Erik von Sneidern
Erik runs the Disstonian Institute, a website full of arcane information about Disston saws. Henry Disston started making saws in 1840 and for the next hundred years Disston saws were the best in America.»more»
Object of obsession: the infill plane
From about 1860, Thomas Norris & Son of London made the Rolls-Royce of woodworking planes, constructed with iron, steel, brass or gunmetal bottoms and sides, infilled with rosewood, ebony and other exotic timbers. High grade cabinet makers aspired to own these costly tools, known for their precision and performance. Discerning woodworkers and collectors still search for Norris planes, which have not been made since 1940.»more»
If you pick up Stanley planes in junk shops and wonder how old they are, I have a suggestion. Print out this web page and carry it with you. It’s a dichotomous key: Answer a few yes/no questions about the tool to discover its date. You might find a Type 1 (1867-1869), worth a lot of money to an obsessed Stanley collector.»more»