The Easy Post: Why I Love eBay

Some posts are easier to write than others. This is an easy one.

One of the best things about hand tools is that good ones have been made for a long time. There are beautiful, beautiful new tools available for very high prices – rosewood and brass infill planes, white bronze planes from manufactures like Lie-Nielsen. Most of which are out of reach for a hobbyist like me. But good, workable tools have been around forever, and were often designed to last for a lifetime’s work.

And that’s why I love eBay. I’ve found some remarkable deals, and some great old tools – and the process of restoring some has brought me to know them in wonderful and unexpected ways. Here’s a few – some restored, some still to be done.

One note: I am not an antique tool collector. I onlly pick up tools that I’m actually going to use. They’re beautiful things – but to me, the beauty is in the craft, not on the shelf.

Millers Falls “eggbeater” drill: These aren’t hard to find at all. Often less than $20. Mostly missing the knob on the side, but work fine without it. Cleaning up the layers of old varnish on the handle showed it to be a beautiful grade of rosewood. All the teeth are in perfect shape, and its action is smooth as velvet. Price on eBay: $16.

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Wood River #5 plane: These are made by Woodcraft, and the reviews I’ve read have been mixed. Personally, I think it’s great. It handles well, is balanced well, is solid and accurate construction, and it works great. Yes, the lateral adjustment lever is flimsy. I can live with that… because it works exactly like I want it to. You can Google a couple of really negative reviews of these planes. Don’t believe them. Price on eBay: $35.

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Stanley/Bailey #4 smoothing plane: There are scads of these around. Lots of them still in regular use, and there’s a reason for that. This one had been pretty well tuned, but I don’t like the refinishing on the handles – I’ll probably strip it off and polish them, and replace them if I still don’t like the way they feel. I honed the blade and put it to work immediately. Price on eBay: $50.

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Stanley #40 scrub plane: It’s a rough, simple tool, for doing rough, simple work. It’s for removing large amounts of stock, in preparation for finer smoothing planes. Very few parts, simple mechanism. Still needs some cleaning, and I’ll probably sand and polish the handles. Some of the japanning could be in better shape, but it doesn’t affect the way it works. Price on eBay: $50.

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Stanley #62 ruler: Boxwood, bound in brass. Usually around $20. The brass-bound ones (like this) stay perfectly accurate over time. This one has all its alignment pins intact, which is a little unusual. It cleaned up great, and is easy to read. Every time I use it, I wonder how many woodworkers handled it before me, and what they built. This one just feels good to my hands. Price on eBay: $16.

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Japanese mortising chisels: No maker’s mark, no earthly idea about the quality of the steel. They work well, and were an inexpensive way to try out my first Japanese tools. They work fine, and are smaller and easier to handle for small mortises than my Narex mortising chisels (although for larger mortises, I’ll take the Narex chisels any day and twice on Sunday). Price on eBay: $9 for the pair.

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Veritas Detail Chisels: Some days, the universe smiles on you. I’d been drooling over these at the Lee Valley website for about $200, trying to find a way to justify the expense. Then these turned up on eBay. One chisel had a small ding on one corner of the edge, which sharpened out in about three minutes. I’ve never used chisels for detail work that even come close to these. Price on eBay: $65.

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None of this is to say that all eBay sellers are reputable – but I’ve been buying and selling things on eBay for about 15 years now, and I’ve gotten burned exactly once. Watch the seller’s reputation and return policies. Read the descriptions carefully, know what you’re looking for, and be patient. You can find some amazing tools at wonderful prices if you’re willing to invest a little steel wool, mineral spirits, elbow grease, and sharpening time. And if you’re not, why are you interested in hand tools in the first place?

This fall, my good friend Bill Baldwin is going to bring some old hand planes back to Dallas from the Lawson Boating Heritage Center on Chatauqua Lake. I’m going to clean them up and restore them to workable condition. There’s an old wooden jointer plane, a great #5 Stanley Bedrock, a coffin smoother with a cracked body that I probably can’t do anything about, and two great wood and metal transitional planes. My goal isn’t to make them museum pieces or collector’s items. Just to get them into working condition so they can be used in the shop there if they want to. They may never get used, but I’ll have fun doing it. And I’ll be wondering about the woodworkers who used them to feed their families, to make fine work, and treated them well enough that some have survived more than a century in usable condition.

More to come.

Ross Henton

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Soiling the Till, Round Pegs, and the World’s Biggest Pencil Sharpener

Till is kind of an interesting word. It isn’t always short for “until”, and it doesn’t always mean turning the soil for planting. It has a third, and very different meaning:

till (noun)
1. a drawer, box, or the like, as in a shop or bank, in which money is kept.
2. a drawer, tray, or the like, as in a cabinet or chest, for keeping valuables.
3. an arrangement of drawers or pigeonholes, as on a desk top.
Origin: 1425–75; late Middle English tylle, noun use of tylle, to draw, Old English –tyllan (in fortyllan, to seduce); akin to Latin dolus, trick, and Greek dólos bait (for fish), any cunning contrivance.

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I love my tool cabinet, even if it’s just a simple box with holders. It has a huge amount of space and saves me a world of frustration. But ny collection of saws has grown to include several detail saws (coping, gent’s, flush-cutting, and jeweler’s), my bowsaw, a couple of wonderful old Disston panel saws, a Japanese Dozuki saw, and a set of beautiful Lee Valley carcass and dovetail saws. They accumulate like dust bunnies. Fitting some of them (particularly the panel saws) into my tool cabinet was going to mean a lot of rearrangement, so I decided to move them into their own storage and use my tool cabinet for planes, chisels, and the various other tools which also accumulate. (I blame eBay.)

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Antique saw tills could sometimes be extremely ornate. They occasionally had complex moldings, curlicues, detail carvings, Queen Anne legs, and… well, you probably get the idea. Some were just rude boxes with slots. I wanted something that was functional, simple, (roughly) matched my tool cabinet, and could be made with scrap I had on hand. The result was certainly simple: two sides, two back rails, a custom holder for the smaller saws, and a front rail. No bottom; I didn’t want it filling up with dust. No nails or screws – not because I have anything against them, but I had some walnut dowel scrap handy and thought it would be fun. It took a couple of hours to make, a handful of scrap red oak, and was some good hand joinery practice. A couple of coats of Watco golden oak danish oil, two coats of spray shellac, and that was it. Cost = $0.00 USD. It looks new – but I’m looking forward to having it get dusty and scarred with years of use in my shop.

Not all pegged joinery is that simple and painless.

The Roubo-strocity has to be really, really solid. I don’t want any wobble or shifting – that’s why I’m building it in the first place. That means the mortise and tenon joinery should be reinforced with pegs, using an old technique called drawboring.

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The joints in the table are enormous. I drilled the bulk out with a forstner bit in an older Dewalt drill (not my good and nearly-new lithium-ion Dewalt, but an older Dewalt 14v that occasionally wafts smoke from the motor housing). Be warned – drilling this many deep holes with a hand drill can burn it up; it’s better to use a drill press. But in this case, getting the legs up onto the drill press was going to be a bit of a hassle. Also, the mortises in the table top absolutely had to be done on the floor – lifting it to the drill press was an impossibility. I could have chopped everything out by hand, but that’s a lot of work, and my shoulder isn’t up to that yet. A piece of blue painter’s tape around the shaft of the bit let me get the holes to a mostly-uniform depth, and my indispensable Oddjob (in the picture, not the one with the bowler hat from Goldfinger) helped me ensure they were deep enough to accept the tenons.
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Once the bulk was removed, I cleaned up the edges of the mortises with a mallet and chisel, assembled each joint, and drilled the holes for the pegs. draw boring means that the holes in the mortises and tenons were slightly offset – about 3/32″ – so that when the peg is driven in, the joint is pulled together. That means drilling the holes through the mortised piece, assembling the joint, marking the center of the hole on the tenon, disassembling the joint, drilling the offset hole in the tenon, re-assembling it, and driving the pegs in. Yes, it’s a lot of work – but seeing the peg pull the joint together tight was magical. I absolutely love this technique. Joints made this way are extremely strong, and can be assembled without glue. The joinery attaching the top to the base isn’t glued, so if I ever need to break the table down to move it, I can always drill the pegs out, knock it apart, and reattach the top later. Christopher Schwarz wrote the definitive article on the technique, and I highly recommend it.

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Since the drawbored holes don’t line up, the ends of the pegs have to be tapered. I could have whittled them to shape, but these pegs are 3/8″ rived white oak, and it’s tough. The easiest way I found was to sharpen them on my benchtop disc sander. It took about 20 or 30 seconds each – and saved me either cutting myself or having to get a bigger pencil sharpener.

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One thing’s for certain. This bench is going to be solid. I don’t think anybody’s going to walk off with it if I leave the garage door open.

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The astute among you will probably have noticed the slot cut in the lower leg in the detail photo (above). In case you’re wondering, that’s to accept part of the vise hardware. Which brings me to the next couple of topics: flattening the top, and installing the vises – a Benchcrafted leg vise, and a Veritas sliding tail vise.

More to come.

Ross Henton

It’s the Little Things

There are some days when I head to the shop, look at my big projects in the works, and all I want to do is piddle around with the little stuff. The shop is a great place to go unwind, put things in order, and feel like I’ve accomplished something – even if it’s really small.

If you’ve been following this blog, you probably know by now how much I love card scrapers. They produce an amazing finish without filling the air with dust. I’ve had a couple of them for years now, and when I get to working, I don’t always want to stop and sharpen them when they get dull (yes, I know how trivial it sounds) – I just want to pick up a sharp one and keep going.

The scraper is probably the simplest tool in the shop. Hammers are complex, intricate construction by comparison. A card scraper is just a flat piece of metal. The trick is in the sharpening, which turns a burr along the edge, and can be used for everything from removing finish to final stock prep. Old scrapers were often made out of old sawblades, just cut into rectangles. Consequently, there was a huge range of hardness to the metal. Some soft, some really hard.

A scraper’s burr is turned with a steel rod – high speed steel or carbide. And that’s where my trouble started.

A while back, I picked up a pack of Lie-Nielsen card scrapers on sale. Just plain, flat metal scrapers. When my hiatus after my injury was past, I stopped to sharpen them, and the results I got were lousy. It can be a little tricky, and I think some people make the process overly complicated, but it ain’t rocket surgery. I reviewed everything I had to read on the subject – which is quite a lot – analyzing my technique, how to file and hone the edge, how to draw the metal, how to turn the burr. Still lousy results.

For once, the fault wasn’t actually mine. My burnisher is a Crown Tools high-speed steel burnisher, in a pretty rosewood-ish handle. I have nothing against many Crown tools; my Crown chisels are perfectly good. But I’ve had a lemon or two. My Crown try square wasn’t well made, and finally became extremely inaccurate – enough to ruin a joint or two. And I finally decided that the Crown burnisher just wasn’t hard enough for the Lie-Nielsen scrapers. (Research showed me that Chris Schwarz didn’t like it either, but I don’t know his reasons.)

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The answer was to find something hard enough to handle the steel of the new scrapers. I looked at carbide burnishers, but the ones I saw were $75 and up. I wasn’t willing to shell out that much for a metal rod in a wooden handle, and I wanted to make certain I was right about the problem. Besides, I love making my own tools. The feeling of using tools I’ve made to build things I love making is amazing.

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So on searching, I found a solid carbide rod on Amazon.com for a whopping $6.95, and dug out a piece of mesquite from the scrap bin. I drilled out a slightly smaller hole in the end of the scrap, heated the rod with a torch, and drove it in. I cut the handle to shape on the bandsaw, shaped it on the belt sander, sanded it to 220, wiped it with oil, and polished it on the Beall Wood Buffer. Viola – one carbide scraper with a custom mesquite handle that fits my hand perfectly. Total: $6.95, about 20 minutes work, and there isn’t another one exactly like it on the planet.

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By the way, it works great – the Lie-Nielsen scrapers turn a beautiful burr that lasts longer than the edge on my old scrapers. Guess which one I’ll reach for in my cabinet? And I’ll smile every time I use it.

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Speaking of small stuff: I had a piece of scrap Texas Ebony, with some interesting heartwood/sapwood contrast. I’ve made a bunch of business card holders with brass hardware from Rocker for my team at the office. (Guys, if you read this before tomorrow, be patient – some of them aren’t dry yet.)

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They’re all about the wood. The design couldn’t be simpler, and they’re a nice way to use up pretty scrap. I didn’t have enough ebony for all of them, so some will be padauk, mesquite, curly maple, or whatever I have in the bin. Cut to basic shape, do the detail shaping on the belt sander, finish as desired, drill two holes for the holder, and you’re done.

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Today’s lesson… When in doubt: make something. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Little stuff like this makes people smile. Including me.

Next time: The new saw till, some plane restoration, my two new/old planes, and progress on the workbench (hopefully).

Ross Henton