Thomas Chippendale (1718–1779) is often hailed as Britain’s greatest furniture maker. As someone who often cherishes the great work of craftsmen who have fallen into obscurity, I am impressed that Chippendale continues to be well known by the general public. Perhaps the biggest reason is the lasting influence of The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director, Chippendale’s book of furniture designs. As the Met’s program noted, “the unprecedented publication cemented Chippendale’s name as England’s most famous cabinetmaker and also endured to inspire furniture design up to the present day.”
In 1754 - six years after moving to London from West Yorkshire to start his workshop - Chippendale published The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker's Director. There’s no way around it: he was a marketing genius who understood how to create a taste for the kind of furniture a gentleman should want, and concurrently tout his own ability to meet this need. Chippendale was of course not the only game in town, but his design book was the most comprehensive. The book featured 160 designs for many kinds of furniture and in many different styles (Rococo, Gothic-Revival, etc.) Chippendale’s taste-making extended to the American Colonies, where eager readers sought to emulate the best British fashions and found in Chippendale a masterly guide. The book was a huge expensive undertaking - all those engravings cost money - but it was a major success, went through many reprints, and is still available.
The Met’s exhibit contains only a few actual Chippendale pieces. Most of the pieces in the show are by other furniture makers. American makers who took his designs and adapted them to American tastes and materials. The importance of the show is in showing Chippendale’s influence via examples such as Chippendale-style chairs made by Philadelphia craftsmen for General John Cadwalader, a Revolutionary War hero. The influence continues in another chair in the show, one designed in the 1980s by the starchitects Denise Scott Brown & Robert Venturi.
And of course there’s a first edition of Chippendale’s Director to continue the legacy of promotion and inspiration. Other ephererma which I found really interesting were trade cards from the eighteen century, and some original drawings by Chippendale for the book.
“Chippendale’s Director: The Designs and Legacy of a Furniture Maker” runs through January 2019 and is part of many celebrations in honor of the 300th anniversary of Chippendale’s birth.
This past weekend I went to the Museum of the City of New York. The main reason I went was to see the absolutely fabulous Stanley Kubrick exhibit. At the same time I stopped in at a small exhibit of the design work of the architect Rosario Candela. Candela's name is still dropped in New York real estate circles; he is the architect behind some of Manhattan's oldest luxury apartment buildings. The show included a settee c. 1926 that really caught my eye. It was made by a Queens-based company called "Company of Master Craftsman" and sold at the W & J Sloane department store. The settee is a semi-copy of a century previous settee by Duncan Phyfe. If you look at it closely, you can see it is very nice work but not up to Phyfe's standards. For example, the beading on the legs is nice, but doesn't exactly flow with the bottom rail. I was struck by how an interior designer in the 1920s - rather than create yet another Art Deco design -- instead decided that a throwback design was appropriate in a modern setting, and didn't make everything look dated.
This approach is really important to consider if you are planning to sell furniture now. We cannot sell furniture in an older style that is meant for an older house. That ship sailed. We have to show how great design doesn't become obsolete: while the inspiration for the new piece might be old, its context and value can be new. Colonial reproductions, for example, are a very tough sell. Almost nobody wants them. But you can tell people -- and you should tell people -- that your modern designs were inspired by great design from two centuries ago.
This thought allowed my mind to drift to the English Arts & Crafts movement, which I like enormously. Nancy Hiller has a great new book about the subject - including working drawings for several pieces. You can look at her book as a historical assessment of the style, which it is, but I think there is a lot more to be gained understanding the style and designs that make the English Arts & Crafts movement so appealing today. Then get some wood and seeing how the style fits in now.
P.P.S. The phrase "thought leader" is about as cliched as it comes, but I enjoy the vision in my head of a bearded William Morris making a presentation about traditional handwork to a group using a Power Point display and worrying about the number of Twitter followers.
I built my main workbench about thirty years ago and overall I am still pretty pleased with it. I knew about and loved holdfasts when I built it, so the bench has a row of holdfast holes. Since I was young and unschooled - perhaps more importantly, this story pre-dates the Internet - my holdfast holes were not quite 3/4" of an inch in diameter. This is why I am the only person on the planet who has Gramercy Holdfasts that are smaller than standard. Interestingly it isn't because I commissioned a special pair of holdfasts for my bench after we developed them; it was that the first prototypes were made for my bench. Strangely, they didn't work on anyone else's bench with standard holes.
Since that time I have built one other bench, and we built three other benches for use in the showroom and for teaching.
For work-holding on my bench I also have a face vise, a tail vise, and a row of square dogs. Over the years however, I have found myself using the face vise less and less, and the tail vise has become my go-to. My portable bench has a small Milwaukee vise on it and holdfast holes. The showroom benches have holdfast holes and removeable Moxon vises.
In the past decade there has been a ton of work, mostly prominently by Chris Schwarz, on workbenches and certainly his work has influenced the showroom benches. My other benches pre-date his work. In Chris's newest book, "Ingenious Mechanicks" he writes about all the accessories you can have on a workbench. One of the most important is the planing stop, which dates (at least) from Roman times. While immobilizing wood on my workbench for planing has never been that hard, the setups can be annoying especially when I am in a rush. And planing with something not properly immobilized is really a frustrating time waster.
Although I have known about planing stops for years (they are in Moxon from 1678 and Felibien (above) from 1676) I never really wanted to chop a square hole in my bench to try one out. However, being a tool maker in addition to being a tool seller, I have the means for making my own version. Or I should say our own version. We are currently in pre-production of our own planing stops.
My criteria for the planing stops were very simple. I don't want to have to modify my bench unless I really wanted to (which I don't). The stop has to work well on 3/4" wood planed on edge since I don't do much bigger stuff. And the planing stop had to be basic so we could install it and use it differently on our different benches depending on the particular situation and configuration.
One more thing: we wanted to make it completely in-house.
I'll be writing more in the weeks to come - on installation, uses, more history, and other ideas that went into the project - but it's early yet. The stop isn't even listed on our website for pre-order yet. That should happen in a couple of weeks or so (there is many a slip between cup and lip).
The stop in the picture above is screwed onto a 3/4" bit of square scrap and drops (unnecessarily loosely) into the square dog holes on my bench. The stop has sharp undercut points and digs in really well. Planing an edge on a 3/4" board about two feet long and 4" wide is dead stable - no need for additional holders at the end. I need to test longer boards of course but right now I am pretty happy.
One of the things we enjoy most at Tools for Working Wood is chewing the fat with our fellow woodworkers. We also love it when the showroom has a bunch of people from different walks of life and sometimes even different continents chatting about woodworking, sometimes giving advice or admiring pictures of each other's projects. So we decided to set aside a bit of time every Friday afternoon to get together. The idea is to hang out, have some snacks, and learn more about some aspects of woodworking. The structure of the Woodworkers' Hangout will evolve depending upon the interests of people who show up, and we have some different ideas for future weeks (for example, playing with different kinds of finishes). But right now we're taking out some interesting antique items. Last week we put on the white gloves and looked at a first edition of Joseph Moxon's Mechanick Exercises. This Friday, it's hands-on with some really old English mitre planes.
The picture above shows the planes I will be bringing in. The oldest on the left is from the mid 18th century. I am not sure if it is usable, but this plane and the one next to it - a Gabriel mitre plane circa 1790 - are two of the oldest metal planes in existence. Probably fewer than 80 survive that are older. Christopher Gabriel is also known as the seller of the tools in the Seaton chest. The Gabriel mitre plane really reflects the English box mitre plane at its peak form (with a form that didn't change at all through the 19th century). Next to the Gabriel is a unmarked "Improved" mitre plane, probably by Spiers from the late 1850's or so. This plane reflects a time when users were adopting metal bench planes. I think this style was a last ditch attempt to transform the larger mitre planes into something useful. It failed. The style is a fairly rare form.
Finally, all the way on the right, is a small miter plane by I. Smith, probably dating from 1860's or so -- really the end of the road for the box mitre. Its most common application was for keyboard makers to plane ebony and ivory and other exotics, but by that time the world of mitres had moved on. Spiers and Norris, the two most famous steel plane makers, did make mitre planes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (I also have a much later Spiers mitre plane), but both companies made their reputations on bench planes of various sizes and styles.
If you search my blog for "mitre plane" you will find I have written a lot about the details. I am really excited after all these years of writing about the tools to actually set some time out so people can use them.
The plan for Friday (June 8 2018) is to have these planes (three of them at least) sharpened up and ready for action. If you are in the New York area on Friday afternoon and want to give them a go, come on by! As a tool collector, I think it's really important that we experience some of the older designs -- sort of a not-so-old Experiential Archeology. I think using these old and iconic designs will give you a first hand chance to experience at least a little of what our forebears experienced, and gives a practical context to these old tools.
N. B. If you have the urge to come to Brooklyn this Friday for the hangout (and we would love to see you) there is parking in front of our space and in the area, you will miss most of the traffic coming into the city on a Friday night, and after the event you can go out for a bang up evening on the town! If the weather is nice you should also go for a walk in Greenwood Cemetery. It closes at 7:00. If you bring disinterested friends and family with you we can direct them to nearby places with things to do that are not tools.
I was organizing some stuff in the shop the other day and I came across one of my old sets of chisels. As a tool collector, I have lots of tools that I have never used. The the four sets of bench chisels detailed here are different. They reflect different times and my evolution as a woodworker.
The very first set of chisels I bought - back in the early 1980's - was for my first or second class at The New School (then known as The New School for Social Research, then New School University - some consultants said search engines would be more impressed by the name - and now simply The New School). This was before I met Maurice Fraser, my woodworking mentor. This chisel set very much reflected a beginner's needs. I bought the set of four Marples bench chisels at Garrett Wade, the legendary woodworking store on Spring Street in Manhattan.
I quickly got disenchanted with the Marples chisels. I am not sure why, but in retrospect I bet it's because I could not sharpen them properly. I just didn't know how; what might have seemed obvious to others was beyond my comprehension at the time.
Pretty soon after getting the Marples chisels, I went back to Garrett Wade and bought a nice set of twelve Iyori Oire-Nomi. I chose Japanese chisels because I had just read Toshio Odate's great book, "Japanese Woodworking Tools." It was pretty obvious that (in accordance with the old saying about being a poor workman) it was far easier to find fault with my tools than to actually figure out how to sharpen efficiently. The Oire-Nomi were my most expensive tool purchase up to that time. I carefully stripped the oak handles and then sanded and refinished them with Watco. I also stamped the size on each handle. Of course difference sized chisels have different width blades, but when I had stripped the handles I also removed the sticker on each chisel identifying the respective size, and I thought it was vital that I replace the sticker with another method of identification. To this day I have a memory of stamping the sizes on each chisel - and I did a pretty good job. I should probably acknowledge that I had bought a number stamp set at a local flea market and was most certainly just jonesing for something to stamp.
In the mid-1980's I started studying with Maurice Fraser. He had a set of Stanley 750's, possibly the most iconic of American style bench chisels. Naturally studying with Maurice made it clear that it was time to do some shopping. As Stanley 750's went out of production in 1962, this was a fine time to awaken my collecting gene. The assembly of my set took years, but as you can see all the chisels are in new or nearly new condition. One problem with the Japanese set I had is that the narrower chisels were almost square in section. This make cutting dovetails hard, and the 750's were a treat to use in comparison. Maurice taught me how to sharpen, which also influenced me as a woodworker and collector.
These are the chisels I used for twenty-five years. In that time I passed from an amateur woodworker/tool collector working in tech on Wall Street, to a guy who could get more tools directly from the manufacturer. When we started selling Japanese tools, I found that the chisels by Nishiki were the best I had ever used by any maker anywhere. So when for a short time we offered decorative chisels by Nishki, I decided to splurge and get myself a set of fancy dovetail chisels. These chisels have the longest edge retention of any chisel I have used, and are a joy to use. When I took a class with Toshio Odate in 2005, he made fun of the fact that the handles were made of Ebony, noting that the wood is brittle and hard on the hand. He's right. Setting the hoops was a nightmare because the Ebony would not soften. I ended up soaking the handle tops for hours and still had problems. But the Ebony transmits hammer blows very directly, a characteristic I like that very much. In retrospect, I would like to have a set of the Ashley Iles dovetail chisels. But aside from the samples in the shop -- that I use whenever I can -- I don't get much of a chance. They seem to sell out too fast for me to snag a set (customers always come first at TFWW).
When a tool maker or seller talks about paring chisels, we don't mean chisels that can be used for paring: Almost any chisel can be used for paring. Rather, we are referring to chisels that were designed to making accurate paring easy.
Paring is a chisel operation in which the chisel is used to shave precise amounts of wood from the work. The goal here is control - otherwise any chisel and a mallet can do the work. There are three important features of a paring chisel:
A handle not designed for mallets. Of the paring chisel's three features, this one is the least distinctive. To enhance control, paring chisels typically have handles designed to be pushed - thin, long, and graceful - rather than the big and possibly hooped handles that are designed to be struck. Thin handles also put the weight of the chisel at the cutting edge so that the tool is easier to maneuver.
Length. This is the paring chisel's second most important feature. Human hands aren't perfectly steady, especially when trying to push a chisel into resistance. But by making a paring chisel very long, the natural side-to-side movement of the hand's impact is minimized at the cut. And the benefit of the long length is that you can easily sight the chisel to make sure it is at the correct angle to the work.
Low Cutting Angle. This is probably the most important feature. The lower the cutting angle, the lower the forces needed to advance the chisel in the wood. This means more control -- and also less of a need for a mallet. While bench chisels are usually set at 25 degrees from the factory, and Japanese chisels at 30-35 degrees, Western paring chisel show up at 20 degrees -- or even less. This translates to an edge that is very fragile but possessing a superb cutting ability. It's why shaving razors are ground at such a low angle as well.
Of course the low angle doesn't work if the steel can't take the low angle. So the best paring chisels are all made of simple carbon steel, hand- or drop-forged for better performance. A wider chisel takes more effort to push through wood than a narrower chisel does, so the wider the paring chisel, the more important it is to have a low primary bevel angle and a blisteringly sharp edge. Last week I experienced the fragility of the sharp edge when I used the wide I Sorby paring chisel in the photo above and I accidentally knocked the edge against something (not very hard). The edge distorted. I stropped it, but it really needs to go back to the stone.
Up to the 1970's, paring chisels were mostly used by pattern makers for careful final dimensioning of a wooden pattern that would be used for metal casting. The best paring chisels on the market were officially called "Patternmaker's paring chisels" because those were the longest. They were also very thin and slightly flexible so that you could "English" them as you applied hand pressure.
Of course, English toolmakers were not the only ones to manufacture paring chisels. In the US, Stanley made a longer version of their iconic 750 chisels. The Stanley 720 series was their "paring chisel," and while not nearly as thin or as long as the English versions, the 720 comes out of the American millwright's chisel tradition and is typical of the paring chisels made by all the American makers.
Japanese paring chisels have the same long length, but the length is in the handle, not the blade. They are stiffer -- and to my taste less desirable -- but that's very much a personal preference. Millions of woodworkers would disagree with my preference. In reality, Japanese paring chisels are perfect for the precise joinery that Japanese woodworking is known for.
We stock Japanese paring chisels by both Nashiki and Iyori. The former are superb, thin, easy to sharpen, and hold an edge. The Iyori chisels have a triangular section that makes them stiffer, but also easier and less expensive to make.
Back to English paring chisels. When shopping for them, look for beveled sides, not straight sides. Straight-sided chisels are known as "registered chisels." Registered chisels don't have the finesse you would want in a paring chisel. They're typically thicker and are more suited to larger work in timber framing.
Older English paring chisels have nice wide bevels -- more elegant and able to get into corners more easily. Sadly, those dating from the 1980s and beyond just have token beveling at the side and frankly don't pass muster with me. The reason we do not stock any Western paring chisels is that as far as we know nobody is currently making anything that I would consider worth owning.
Older paring chisels have nice octagonal bolsters, which were hand-forged, ground, and harder to make than round bolsters. Boxwood handles were the traditional material for paring chisels. Boxwood is brittle so it doesn't like being struck, but finishes up nicely and has a great feel to it. Incidentally, the traditional way of fitting boxwood handles was having a snug but not pressure fit on the tang, and attaching the tang with a bit of rosin poured in the hole. Both of these features are nice to have, but not requirements.
Because paring chisels are long, thin, and have bevels, they are hellish to make and require the highest skill level of any chisel. Stanley and others solved the manufacturing issues by making the chisels fatter -- at the expensive of performance. The basic problem is that the chisel forge has to forge a long thin straight blank, which is hard to do, and compensate for warping during hardening. After hardening, the chisels have to be made straight again, only to curl up as the side bevels are ground in. It's a no-win situation requiring great skill in forging and grinding. Ray Iles told me that by the 1970's Ashley Iles was forging large quantities of paring chisels, and one of Ray's jobs as a youth was bringing the paring chisel blanks to the one guy left in Sheffield who ground paring chisels for all the edge tool makers.
According to contemporary catalogs, English paring chisels were made in widths from 1/8" to 2". I have never even heard of an 1/8" paring chisel, so it's possible it's wasn't a practical size and was never really manufactured. For me, larger sizes -- 1 1/4" - 2" -- are the ones that get the most use, but since I am not a patternmaker, nor a Japanese temple builder, the main use I have for them is paring a mortise to a scribe line after chopping, and occasionally trimming a surface. For paring the odd fat dovetail joint, I use my regular bench chisels. Instrument makers also love paring chisels for the precise formation of wooden parts. With that in mind, what I recommend is that if you see some wide English paring chisels, in decent shape, that are fairly long, snap them up. But don't lose sleep if they seem elusive.
P.S. We expect to get a shipment soon of Ashley Iles beveled edge chisels with the wide 2" size back in stock. Uber long paring chisels might be a discretionary purchase but I think wider bench chisels are very useful. While you might not use them every day, having wider (1 1/2" or 2") bench chisels, are especially useful for cutting clean joints at a scribe line or cutting wide base between pins on a dovetail joint. As with paring chisels, with wide chisels of any kind, a low angle, and keeping them uber sharp will make them much easier to use and get the results you want.