The Blog’s Namesake’s Little Brother

One of the first (and still best) hand tools I made was my bowsaw… courtesy of the excellent class at the Dallas Woodcraft store. Howard Hale’s bowsaw class was great, but it’s sadly been discontinued due to unavailability of the blades. But the design was great, and has some distinct advantages over some traditional designs. The blade is fairly big – about 1 1/4″ wide – and works for everything from breaking down stock to cutting dovetails.

But sometimes, I’ve longed for something a little finer – more like a coping saw. Let’s face it; commercial coping saws either A) suck or B) are waaaay too expensive titanium-framed creatures. Gramercy Tools makes an excellent small bowsaw ($150), and sells the hardware separately… just handle pins and blades. The blades are a little unusual; they’re 12″ coping saw blades.

But the construction plans are kind of a pain. It calls for a loose-tenon mount of the stretcher to the frame, and it’s fiddly and often unstable. There’s a tradeoff between stability and flexibility. I found the mount used in my larger bowsaw both easier and more stable, and still allows the right amount of tension. This is the original, and was the namesake of this blog:


Its little brother is for tight curves, but is essentially the same design: U-shaped joints for the stretcher, but with the narrow blade and excellent mounting hardware from Gramercy tools.

wood-11-of-17This is a five-piece project: two side frames (walnut), the stretcher and handles (walnut and ash), and the tensioning pin (laminated ash and padauk). I traced the original frames and printed an 80% size copy to build from. It was a couple of hours work making the parts on a bandsaw and spindle sander.

wood-10-of-17The handles are octagonal, and the pins from Gramercy are set in with epoxy. I don’t really care for the traditional round handles. These just fit my hand better. (And I steadfastly refuse to own a lathe; all I’d do is make toothpicks all day.) One octagon cut on the table saw, cut into long and short handles, then evened up with a plane on the joinery bench I described in the last post.


The pins turn freely in the frame. The stretcher took a slight adjustment in the depth of the joint to allow the right amount of tension to be applied.


The tensioner is wound with some nylon cord. This design will take a lot of tension – you’ll have no problem at all keeping the blade at whatever tension you’d like, and don’t have to worry about stressing the frame. As usual, the parts were finished in a few minutes on the Beall Wood Buff. I should point out that every hand tool I’ve made has been finished the same way, and I’ve never had to retouch one of them – planes, handles, saws, anything.


The result… smaller, lighter – weighs almost nothing – and turns on a dime.


And it works as advertised: the 16 tpi blade turns a 1/4″ circle easily, and will likely go much smaller without complaining.


This is a real keeper. Six hours to make, $25.95 for the pins and three blades, and a trip to the scrap bin for the wood. This one goes front and center in the tool cabinet. And I think my other coping saws go in the next garage sale. There is absolutely no comparison.

Today’s project was brought to you by The Paul Tillotson Trio, Erik Satie, and Bob Culbertson on Chapman Stick.

More to come. Stay tuned.

Ross Henton

September 2016

Benches Rising

One thing about vintage tools… they age more gracefully than I do. I was out of the shop (and derelict in my blogging) for quite a while, but I’m glad to say that I’m back on track. One of the minor projects that’s been lying dormant for a while is a riser/vise for the top of the workbench.  I had originally thought about a Moxon vise, but I had a couple of press screws in the pile and decided to use those instead.


Construction is extremely simple, and a lot of the design was adapted from the bench-on-bench plans at – a fantastic blog.

The top is just sections of fir 2×4, left over from the original workbench build. The screws are veneer press screws (from Woodcraft, I think).  wood-2-of-17

The threaded supports for the screws are buried in the laminations of the top, and the front face vise is some scrap mesquite (if there is such a thing). The riser is about 28″ wide, and will just fit a 24″ board between the screws.

wood-3-of-17Two washers keep the handles from marring the face of the vise, two rubber washers (visible below, just barely) keep the front face in place when it retracts, and I sank two metal collars just larger than the threads into the mounted mesquite block.

wood-4-of-17The stands are just I-beams made out of scrap plywood. The version on uses dado joinery; this is just simple pocket-hole joinery. Two threaded inserts under the top and a couple of threaded knobs let the stands be removed, so the whole thing breaks down for storage. The top has holes for holdfasts for bench dogs. It’s important to make the stands high enough to allow your longest holdfasts to clear the workbench below.

wood-5-of-17If working with longer boards, the riser can be clamped in place with the workpiece registered against the front of the bench. That makes for an extremely stable arrangement.

All told? I think the press screws were about $10 each. Bushings, scrap wood, rubber washers… that was it. The build took an afternoon and an evening (including letting the glue dry).

First impressions are absolutely great. I cut some dovetails as soon as it was finished, and it was much more comfortable – and my accuracy improved by having the workpiece up closer to me instead of down at the right height for planing.

Brought to you by Oscar Peterson’s Night Train, and Pat Metheny’s A Map of the World.
Stay tuned.

Ross Henton

September 2016


A Simple Test

If you’re filing something (like a piece of hardware, as seen here) and it seems to be taking longer than expected, shift farther down the file.


Take short strokes as close to the handle as you can work. If it cuts better and faster, the file is worn out and should be replaced.
Seems obvious, doesn’t it? So why did I just waste ten minutes, when I should have checked last time I used it? Looks like I’m off to the store.

How (mildly) annoying.

Ross Henton
January 2014

Sometimes, It’s a Mystery

Yes, I’m late. Real Life Stuff has intruded on my shop work, and when it suffers my blog lags further behind with it. But I’m back – at least until next month (shoulder surgery again – which is going to mean more time NOT making stuff).

But this project may hold me for a little while. For once, I’m not going to talk about what it is first; I’m just going to dive in. I’m also going to try to talk about the design more than the technique. Think of it as the Mystery project, and just bear with me.

So, the story goes: I found a piece of maple. Not your ordinary stuff – waterfalls, birdseyes, beautiful figure – and two big comma-shaped holes in it. I put it in the stack, and used to pull it out and stare at it. There was something that was itching to be built, but I couldn’t figure out what. Perhaps I Was Not Worthy of such a piece of wood.

Three years passed. Four. Finally, it hit me. It needed to be two bookmatched panels. This was a wee tiny bit of a problem, because it had some twist – enough that I couldn’t get a clean enough resaw to get full thickness out of it. So I did what I could, and went to see my buddy Mike Fannin. Mike’s an amazing woodworker, and he has (lucky for me) infinite patience AND a thickness sander. There was no way this piece was going through the planer – it would shatter like glass. The grain and figure of the wood was far too wild. Mike helped me get it sanded down to 1/4″ panels – thick enough for what I had in mind.

Next: off to Wood World, who was amazingly enough having a sale on walnut. I bought enough for what I had in mind, and a piece of 1/4″ walnut plywood for the back. That was enough for the casework (or so I thought; silly me). I let it stabilize a couple of weeks, and decided that 48″ x 32″ x 6″ was a good size. (What was I thinking? It’s enormous. The wife-unit looked at it and said “Well, it’s bigger than I imagined. We’ll see.” No kidding. The Grand Canyon was bigger than I imagined, too.)

The casework is dovetailed, and the top and bottom pieces of the frame overhang the sides by 1″ for the doors. The back is the sheet of plywood, and that’s where the first problem started. Layout hit a minor snag. I’m a pins-first guy (don’t start in on me about it). The problem was in transferring the layout from top to sides because of the sheer length of the boards; I couldn’t just balance one on the other and start marking. I used a couple of metal brackets designed for squaring boxes, and clamped them in place while I transferred the markings. One problem (for me) with marking dovetails in darker wood is that you can’t see pencil lines. You can’t even see knife lines well enough to cut accurately. Chalk pencils don’t work; they aren’t fine enough. I think the solution is going to be to install brighter worklights in my shop. Yes, I’m getting older. ;

The dovetails actually went pretty well – I ain’t an expert, but I’m getting better. Dovetails by hand in walnut aren’t the easiest thing I’ve ever attempted; the wood is hard and a little brittle. I had some minor chips (one fixed with a wedge, as you can see), and one assembly crack. But one thing I’ve learned is that dovetails tend to look like crap sometimes about the midpoint; they’re cut okay, they fit okay, but look a little sloppy. That vanishes with some sandpaper, a block plane, and a few drops of oil. I used to be really, really hard on my dovetails. They were imperfect: no matter how I tried, they just didn’t look quite even, quite perfectly machined. Then a teacher of mine at Woodcraft (Howard Hale, great guy, great woodworker) pointed something out to me. “Of course they’re not perfectly even. You want perfectly even, machined dovetails, go to Haverty’s. This is handwork. It’s slightly uneven. That’s why it costs six times as much.”

Cutting the groove to inset the back left square holes from the notch in the tails, but those are easy to plug. I had a couple of chips and one cutting error (yes, I cut on the wrong side of the line, of course I did) that was easily filled with a piece of veneer dipped in glue.

Once the casework was assembled, I started to look at what’s-good vs. what’s bad: the case was square, everything fit well, the joinery was okay – but the groove for the back panel was just slightly too wide, and the back rattled a little bit. Also, I realized that I had a structural problem: due to the sheer size of the case, it was possible that the sides might warp – and there was nothing to stop that from happening. My solution is something of a Grand Experiment: I cut two slats with dovetailed ends and fitted them sidewise into the back of the case, in hopes of holding it more stable. Since the plywood back won’t expand (in theory), I went ahead and glued them to the back. If I were redoing this project, I’d make the back thicker. The whole piece would be quite a bit heavier with a solid back, but it would also be stronger in the long run. We’ll see.

I added a 45-degree cut french cleat to the top of the back, and stopped the last of the bothersome rattle with a strip of veneer glued into the groove. The case seems solid, tight, and it’s still square. So unless it disintegrates over time, I’m satisfied.

The first panels for the doors are glued together (more on that next time). The Mystery Maple is sitting in the corner waiting. I’m on the clock: surgery is December 17th, and this has to be finished by then, or it sits until spring. Big thing, ain’t it. There’s the chance the wife-unit will look at it, declare “It’s too big for the room”, and it will go up for sale. That’s okay; if it does, I’ll make a smaller one and get past the growing pains of the design.

One other note: It’s been hard being in the shop sometimes this year without my Angus. He was the perfect Bench Dog, and I’ll always miss him. But Monty shows great promise: he’s already been promoted to Bench Dog, Junior Grade. Like the project, he’s shaping up just fine.

Stay tuned. Watch this space.

Ross Henton

November 2012