tools of the trade 09 Workbench

Working on the ground or floor is not comfortable for most of us, if you wish to work that way, find and follow someone who works in the Japanese tradition. (don’t leave me! but follow them also 😉 )

So the workbench was invented!

A workbench is a sophisticated work holding device designed to hold the work above the ground at a height that is easiest to work at.

look at it! practically oozing sophistication! 😉

OK that is my outdoor bench that I take with me for demonstrations and teaching classes. And it actually is a good bench, it does all of the things a good bench does, and it demonstrates to my students, who sometimes want to say they can’t afford a really good bench, that an expensive fancy bench isn’t what you need. This is a slab of soft maple @ 14″ wide and @ 6’6″ long, it’s on horses here, but it now has legs of its own that just pop out when I want to move it.

So what does it DO? Well mostly it does nothing 😉 It doesn’t bounce when I drive a chisel to make a mortice. So I don’t waste effort making it spring up and down. It doesn’t wiggle or walk across the floor when I am hand planing or sawing. It sits there and doesn’t move. there are a few holes in it so that I can use hold fasts, and there is a planing stop on my left as I stand in front of it. And the top surface is fairly flat so that I can use it as a reference while planing (to check another surface against).

And that is what you need in a workbench. Something that does not move and keeps your work at the right height.

What is the right height?

Well, newer people who haven’t tried the “right height” will argue extensively that the right height is too low and they would hurt their backs if they tried it… and then they hurt their backs at benches that are too high and say that this just proves them right…

Stand up straight, arms down at your sides, make a fist. the right height for you is just high enough so that your knuckles of your fist will touch the top. IT WILL SEEM TOO LOW. at first, then when you put a board on it to plane it you find that the strain that your back experienced at a higher bench goes away! why? Because you are now holding up your weight by leaning on the bench. (from your hands to the plane through the wood to the bench). And your weight on the plane makes the planing less effort. (imagine trying to hold the plane down and push it forwards if it was level with your shoulders while standing up, THAT would give you a back ache)

So when you plane or mortice or saw anything this height lets you put your weight into it and makes the work easier.

While it is very popular to make workbench tops out of solid slabs these days, you can make a very good bench out of thinner stuff (2 x 12’s) if you back it up with structure.

“in the absence of superior timbers, use superior construction” I don’t remember who said that but it is correct


Chairmaker Michael Dunbar starts a YouTube series on making Windsor chairs

The man who taught me most of what I know about chairmaking retired last year.  I was afraid that his knowledge and humor would be lost to us. This week he has announced that he is posting to YouTube a series of instructional videos on chairmaking starting with the first chair that he has(had) his students make, the Sack Back Windsor.

check him out on FB and YT:


Once upon a time, long ago and far away, I was in the shop of an older gentleman who made staircases and only staircases. He could make ANYTHING as long as it was a staircase.

The shop I worked for had sent me there for several months so that he could teach me how to make staircases.

see, he was retiring and he was also refusing to sell his shop and business. He wasn’t retiring because he was too old, he was retiring because the new mass producing staircasing shops were taking all of the business away. The shop that I was in wanted to continue to offer handmade staircases (which he used to make for us).

So one day I asked him if there was no longer any prospects of running his shop as a stair making shop why close? Why not switch to cabinets? Our shop was always way too busy with cabinets. And he already had all of the tools and machines.

He replied that even though he could do that, he said that trying to do to many things can ruin a business, so years ago he set his limits on and around stairs. and it paid off!  most of his men would retire along with him, his business had paid them very well.

when he explained it to me I thought he was nuts, I wanted to do EVERYTHING!!! but eventually I realized that doing too many different things can prevent you from doing any of them well.

set your limits and soar within them!

be well

tools of the trade 08 knives

Sloyd knife, curved knife, mill knife, North American crooked knife, Twca Cam, marking knife, carving knife, all sorts of knives are available.

We all need a knife at some point in our work.

Left to Right, whittling knife, chip carving knife, spoon and bowl knife, mill knife, short Morakniv.


the main thing about knives is keeping them SHARP!!

my favorite for carving and having “at hand” to use is currently the mill knife above.

be well


Tools of the trade: 07 The Spokeshave

I confess to having an affection for the old style wood handled spokeshaves.


The Spokeshave is to the drawknife what the hand plane is to an adze or chisel… if you look at the blades of the older spokeshaves they even look like mini-drawknife blades.

A light touch holding between the first finger and the thumb and just using the rest of the fingers just touching the handles to help steer it. Use it while at the shaving horse or wherever it is handy to trim a little with this tiny plane…

you can buy used and refurbish them, or buy new iron bodied ones, or get a kit from either Dave’s Shaves or Veritas and make it yourself.


With the new iron ones be very careful, make sure the blade lays flat on the bed with no gap behind it! If it has a gap leave it/return it.

As with all tools there are many variations and they all have their place/purpose.

That big ebony one is great for shaping the outside curves on a Windsor chair seat. and the little one just above is made to take the inside curves on scrolls.

Start with one, get used to it, and only get another when you decide you really need it.

be well


Tools of the Trade 06 Drawknives

At every step of the work, the more you do with the previous tool the less you do with the next one… the closer you split to the size you want, the less ax work you do, the closer you get with the axe work the less you use the drawknife. and on through most of the steps toward making something.


the Bigun, 12″ edge

and yet sometimes I get caught up in one step or another and want to do ALL of the work with that tool. or just sit and do the same thing over and over again..

The drawknife is one of those. In green wood it just glides through the wood making smooth wide shavings. It seems to be calming and almost meditative…

Most of the time you will use the draw knife in conjunction with the shaving horse. Sometimes you will use it on material clamped to your workbench.

There are a lot of good, new ones available, and there are a lot of good old ones available… And there is a lot of (bad words) ones (new and old) available out there. Avoid new ones that are painted. I suspect they are hiding something and paint drags on the wood something terrible. Go with reputable dealers or MFGs (Gramercy, Stubai) or you takes your chances.  Old makers of note are: Pexto, D.R.Barton, Sorby, Ashley Iles, Greenlee, Wetherby.. there are many.  New Makers of note: Barr, Stubai, Ox Head (ochsenkopf), Lee Valley, Sorby (again), and again there are many. A new $300 draw knife isn’t necessarily better than a $60 one, but there are a lot of $30 ones that are good, and a lot of $30 ones that are junk (if I never see another cheep painted amazon one that’ll be alright 😉 ). Choose from a tool dealer that has a reputation to uphold. they won’t sell you junk.

When using a drawknife you can pull it straight and square to you:

shaving horse mine straight

or you can skew it, pulling it straight toward you but at an angle to the work:

shaving horse mine skew

or you can slice with it, skewing the blade and traveling sideways while drawing it to yourself:

shaving horse mine slice

(direction of travel is the purple arrow)

and what does this do for you? it changes the angle of attack, or the planing angle. like this:

shaving horse mine geometry

as you can see in the illustrations the length of travel to go up the slope is shortest on the straight cut, longer on the skew, and longest travel is on the skew with slice.


Since the thickness of the blade doesn’t change, then you are effectively making the angle less and less and the edge effectively sharper and sharper. So when the wood is to tough to cut with a straight cut remember to skew and or slice with the tool to make your job easier… and don’t cut to deep either 😉 shallow cuts make the work easier.

be well


PS if you feel that you are going to cut your belly while using a draw knife, try just holding the tool normally and pulling it to you without the wood. You will notice that your arms resist actually getting to your body. However sometimes the material slips and hits you right in the stomach or in the solar plexus… using a “bib” can prevent this from hurting much and will also make you feel safer about pulling a large sharp blade toward yourself. A bigger danger is getting relaxed and setting a foot up on something so that your knee is in range of a corner of the blade. keep your feet down and or on the foot rests.

me with my bib on.