Lots of Tools

Craftspeople accumulate tools and supplies, and some of us could use the help of the tool police to keep us in line with purchases of new bits and pieces. But the current project on my bench proves I eventually use all I accumulate.
The carving currently occupying my workbench is of the schooner Ada Bailey*. As depicted, she is on a starboard tack and is slightly heeled over to port. This means that the observer can view parts of the inside of her starboard ( right side) rail.
It’s straightforward to portray a hull flat on the water, and most times, that is the favored view. In this case, I have to show that rail which adds depth to the carving ( about an eighth of an inch) and makes it necessary for the groundwork behind the vessel to be cleared even deeper. Fussy, fussy, fussy! And a bit of a pain to carve. Out come all the little U-shaped veining tools that hardly ever get used and the tiny rifler files to clean up the odd whisker of wood.
Shaping the sails and hull? No problem. Getting this little bit of perspective correct? Well, it’s getting there.

*Little survives of Ada Bailey. Built in 1884 in the Sewall yard in Bath, Maine, for the A. Sewall Company she foundered ( probably ran aground) in 1894 – location unknown. I’m basing this carving on the 1888 portrait of the vessel by Antonio Jacobson. It seems to be the only rendering that’s survived.

New and Traditional

Many trades and crafts have techniques rooted in centuries of precedence. For example, I’ve known boatbuilders who, while depending upon computer systems to draw and print out plans, still like the feel and physicality of an old-fashioned half-hull model in their hands. 

The set of gouges racked in my carving shop is not an anachronism. Their tool steel and tempering are improvements over the Roman models, but the lineage is apparent. 

But some tools don’t have old origins, and woodworkers use them daily. For example, the bandsaw was probably invented in the 1830s and, by the 1870s, was a regular feature in workshops worldwide. It’s found today in all but a few boatbuilders’ shops and is part of the tool kit of the traditional boatbuilder. Its invention was propitious for the building of the clipper ships, and an early ships saw ( a large bandsaw for cutting timbers for frames) was in use by the mid-1840s in Daniel Mackay’s shipyard. So it was adopted in a traditional trade because of its undeniable utility. It might have been a bit asinine not to use it.

I go back and forth on the concept of what is traditional partly because of its interest to me as an anthropologist and partly because of my trade as a nautical carver. At some point, everything was a new-fangled gadget, in the words of a mentor of mine. And although we don’t note it, many of those gimmicks and gadgets fail to catch on – take a look at some of the supposedly modern wonders issued patents but which failed to either work well enough or fulfilled a purpose for which there was little need.

The ones that do catch on fulfill some fundamental need, and while they make room for innovation, they are often used to create the strictly traditional as well.

Let’s cogitate on this while using the new chatbots and AI tools.


Old toothbrushes don’t get trashed; they get second lives in the workshop. There, without too much ballyhoo, they clean out dust and chips from the inconvenient hollows and flats in a carving that you just can’t reach.
Since everything is available from some vendors as a specialty tool, I could buy a tool designed to do this challenging task. But, amazingly, this wonder of twenty-first-century technology can’t do the job as well as my old toothbrush. But, of course, this does not stop the tool vendors from trying to sell you their goods; nothing timorous about their approach!

The Bevel Gauge

A Flashback Friday Presentation

Before starting full-time studies at Boston University, I worked various jobs to pay my part-time tuition at Metropolitan College. Some of that work was as a personal attendant for older people. There was the doctor who thought he was still in practice in Dorchester and the former wool shipping magnate who dragged me to all the finest private clubs in the Boston area, and at last, there was the ship carpenter.
John was the son of a ship carpenter who had worked in the East Boston shipyard of Donald McKay. John’s dad has worked on many of Mckay’s clipper ships. John himself had been a carpenter in several New England shipyards and was proudest of the work he had done during World War II in the South Portland shipyards building Liberty ships for the war effort.

This job did not pay me as well as babysitting the well-to-do. John’s brother controlled the purse strings and held them tightly closed for his brother’s care. His brother and nephew Paul were all the family John had, and where John was garrulous and generous, the brother was tightlipped and would play games with pay if you didn’t watch. But he paid in cash each week, which made the tuition bill disappear all that much faster.
John was a motor mouth, but on topics he knew, ship carpentry, his stories were fascinating. He’d been his father’s apprentice late in the old man’s life and had learned old-school methods alongside newer ones. His love in later years had been finish carpentry, and once a month or so, John would have the nephew and I dig out the old tool chest that had been his father’s and tell us about each tool and the tricks of how to use them. He maintained that the marine carpenter’s most needed tool was the bevel gauge. The bevel gauge is a long flat metal piece with a slot in the middle. Into the slot fitted a bolt and a closure nut on a long brass and hardwood handle. Adjusting the nut and changing the sliding metal piece’s angle allows you to approximate almost any angle you need. Because there were so many odd angles in marine cabinetwork, John maintained that you could not do without it. ” ninety degrees? Those are hard to find on a boat.”

The nephew, Paul, was a young man searching for a life. His father wanted him in finance with him. But he loved to hear the stories John told about shipyard work and also loved to quiz me about my interest in history and anthropology. His preferred companions were his uncle John and me. We could make an afternoon fly by swapping tales. I’d leave by four-thirty in the afternoon to go home, feed my cat, and get ready for evening classes.
It was a good year. I had time to study on the job, good companionship, and cash every Friday. It couldn’t last. One day I showed up to find that John had been taken to the hospital. Two weeks later, Paul called to tell me that John had died, and the ceremonies had been family only. Then he told me his father was planning on selling the tool chest and all the contents. He hoped to “recoup” some of the expenses of the funeral. I thought it was sad that a family heirloom chest of tools dating to the 1840s would go to auction rather than stay in the family.
Paul asked me: ” Dad has no idea what’s in the chest, and I want something to remember my uncle by. If I took just one tool, which do you think it should be?”
We discussed it. A set of well-crafted saws, chisels, and some handmade wooden planes were in the chest. But when we turned all the options over and over, we realized that it had to be John’s well-used bevel gauge, the indispensable tool.
The next semester I began to study full-time as an anthropology major at Boston University. I heard nothing further from John’s brother or his nephew.
Years later, though, I read an article in one of the Boston paper’s Sunday magazines; in the article, there was a photo of John’s nephew in his law office. In a case prominently set on the wall was John’s bevel gauge. The caption read: “My uncle’s bevel gauge is a reminder to me that not everything in life is square or plumb, nor does it need to be.”
Well, it’s true. We are a society that prefers things square, plumb, and regular, just so in their place. But life isn’t that neat, and that’s where a sort of mental version of the bevel gauge comes in handy.

Finger Files

Little problems are sometimes big problems in carving. I mean this as in getting a file or abrasive into an odd spot. For example, recently, I was carving this small schooner for the top of a sign. I needed to smooth an area that was too tough to work with the usual riffler files, not easily accessible to sheet sandpaper, and not reachable by any attachment on my Dremel tool.

Frustrated, my eyes fell upon my set of Japanese finger files. I’ve barely used these in the several years I’ve owned them. I picked them up, thinking they’d be suitable for the odd job, but that odd job hadn’t materialized. So I grabbed one of the flat ones and discovered I could bend it. It was perfect for the job.

After using it to do the job, I examined the file and found that gentle bending did not cause the abrasive on the file to flake off. Also, there was no set on the abrasive; unlike toothed files, there were no teeth that ran in a set direction.

These tiny files will see a lot more use now. I purchased mine from Lee Valley, but I imagine other vendors also carry them. They are great for applications where toothed files might not be the most responsive tool.

A long game

Wood swells and shrinks with humidity despite careful construction, drying, and sealing. We call this movement, and most commonly, we see it across the width of a plank or piece of wood. This is why you sometimes see splits in panels of wood. Wood remains a living item despite being cut, resawn, planed, shaped, and coated. All our work in creating from it needs to respect this fact. If you sell your work as I have, you want to control that movement. It’s embarrassing when a cutting board fails due to poor construction. Preparing wood, so it is not likely to move excessively and split is what comes before you carve or shape the wood. It can be a long game, but it results in quality down the line.

That’s why I dug through drawers in the shop the other day. I was looking for my moisture meter. I was about to glue up some blanks for boat portraits, and I wanted to check the moisture content of the wood. This little doodad comes in handy around the shop when you need to build cabinets or construct glued-up cherry blanks for projects like ship and boat portraits or cutting boards. Although I’ve known some woodworkers who thought of these as expensive toys or other junk to clutter up the shop, they serve an essential purpose.
I admit to waiting until their prices came into my budget before buying one. Since then, though, I have faithfully used it.

I resaw my own cherry planks for much of my small work. Recently it’s all air-dried stock that initially came in as small logs. I rough saw it, paint the ends to prevent cracking, and let it sit for a year. Eventually, the small logs get taken to the bandsaw and milled into rough planks. The rough planks are now allowed to dry inside or under cover. All the while, the moisture of the wood is going down slowly. Cherry, which I favor, is a bit of a PIA to dry correctly. Dry it too fast, and it splits. So the rule is to let it take its time. I want the wood to be between 6 and 9 percent humidity when I work it into a box, toy, cutting board spoon, bowl, or portrait.

Doing things this way is playing the long game. It’s more time-consuming than going to a lumberyard and getting Alleghany cherry plank stock that has been kiln dried. But the native cherry has a more delicate coloration and grain that I’ve come to prefer. Of course, my tool and shop limitations make this viable only for the smaller projects, but that accounts for eighty or ninety percent of my work these days.

So sometimes, the long slow game is best.

Forgotten Tools

Principal carving is complete, finishing the coaming and adding some details are all that's left before fitting into the hoop

Every craft has a few tools that seem so insignificant and ordinary that we pass over them when discussing how we work. Three that I can’t do without are a simple glove with the fingers cut off, my mallets – a large lignum Vitae one for heavy work, and a little palm job for the delicate touch – the final on this short list is a palm pad filled with a shock-absorbing jell.
These are indispensable next to sharp tools, yet they barely receive a mention in handbooks on carving.

The glove keeps your hand from getting abraded while removing the bulk of the background in a carving – sometimes called wasting the background. Remove a significant amount of wood manually without this, and the most minor damage you’ll have are abrasions and scratches from the wood. Splinters are, of course, an issue that the glove helps you avoid.
The shock pad will protect the palm of your hand from injury caused by regularly propelling the tool into the wood. Depending on how sensitive your hands are, you could be talking about carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, or merely a sore hand.
Whenever you remove a significant amount of wood, using a mallet is a great idea. Carvers mallets are rounded and come in a wide variety of sizes, weights, and wood species. I have about five, but my favorite is the little palm mallet made from a piece of firewood elm. It fits my hand perfectly and is light enough to allow a bit of finesse in hitting the tool.

If you carve and don’t have these tools, you should acquire them – they are cheap and make your carving safer and easier.

Old Tools Don’t Have To Wear Out

This is an original Black and Decker Workmate from the 1980’s. For a while in the ’80’s it was my only carving bench. Then in the ’90’s it went to shows where I was doing demonstrations. Currently it lives outside the carving shop as a solid platform for working on projects that produce prodigious amounts of wood waste, like bowls.

From the paint and varnish you can see that I also use it for finishing. In all those years the only thing that has broken is one of the plastic handles. Today, I got around to replacing part of the bench top. It finally rotted away. Later this summer I’ll make a new one for the opposite side.

I doubt that any of the later iterations of this work surface could take as much abuse as this has and still be working. And remember it sits outside through New England winters.

The plastic hold down on the rear surface is a recent add on from Lee Valley – they are still making add ons that fits this bench.

If you find one of these at a flea market or yard sale give it a good look. It was made solidly in the USA when * Black and Decker was a top tool maker. I expect mine to keep going for many more years.

*As an aside I add that many later imitations were made of the original but did not have the sturdy steel construction.

Compact tools for efficiency and cost

I was reading an online review of a compact router a while ago. An otherwise well-regarded model was getting trounced. To paraphrase: ” I was routing two-inch green, live oak. After forty feet, the AceyDoucy 400 seized up on me. Don’t buy this router. Oh, and AcyDoucy customer service was terrible too. My next router will be the Totem 124XlR; it has excellent reviews!”

You see this sort of thing with compact tools often enough to make you think twice before buying. Of course the compact will not stand up to the punishment you can dish out to the full sized pro tool. They were never designed to. But that doesn’t mean that there can’t be good reasons and circumstances to use a compact. Here are three that are important to me:

Space – they are compact and tend to take up less space than full size.

Cost – they cost less than their full-size siblings.

Capability– Since first introduced, there have been many improvements in their capacity. If you are respectful of the machine’s capabilities, you can expect excellent service.

In my basement shop, I have a full-sized bandsaw, jointer and router table and all the doodads which belong in that shop. But ninety percent of the time, I am working in my greenhouse carving shop and don’t want to run into the house and downstairs to do some tiny job. For those small jobs, I have compact versions that add utility to the carving shop and save a lot of time. I am not going to process 200 feet of teak on my small router table, nor am I about to resaw lots of cherry on the 10-inch bandsaw. But if all I’m doing is cutting some small project wood or trimming some boards, my compact tools do the job.

If you have a small workspace, do think about compact tools. They fit in small spaces, have a lower cost, and will do the job.

For my greenhouse shop, I chose a Rikon 305 10 inch bandsaw (the 306 was not on the market yet), and a Lee Valley compact router table. I equipped the router table with a smaller DeWalt router. But there are several good machines from which to choose. Just for clarity: I am not associated with Rikon, Lee Valley, or Dewalt. As with any purchase, the available tools will include the good, bad, and ugly. Take your time comparison shopping. One last tip: be wary of those review articles which rate “The ten best ——– of 2022.” They don’t always get it right.

Lots of us have small shops either through design or necessity. In my case, I deliberately downsized as I shifted from doing larger maritime work like quarterboards and transoms and started focusing on ship and boat portraits. Whatever reason you have for smaller quarters, I encourage you to rethink the conventional wisdom that large is always best.


Everybody should have a tool in their kitchen or their shop that they purchased because it promised to do multiple things well. It will teach you humility and the cost of human stupidity. The pitchman tells us that having this marvel of industrial design will obviate the need for five tools. And eliminate any need for help in multiple jobs.
We consider ourselves canny, wise, and sharp when it comes to sensing bull shit, but never the less get parted from our money. And so there it sits, taking up space in our kitchen or shop. It does all that the manual says it does, just none of them well.

It was expensive enough that we couldn’t afford to pitch it out on trash day. We’d have to admit to the entire neighborhood that we were foolish enough to buy it. So it sits there in a corner covered in an old tablecloth. We search YouTube for videos that offer to show us how to make it genuinely functional; without luck. Everyone else who has one is shamed into silence because they can’t make it work either.

You think of ways to repurpose it and just set it up for one purpose, but that doesn’t work. You place an ad on Facebook Marketplace offering it to anyone who’ll come for it; no one does. In desperation, you put it out with a big “FREE!!!!!” sign on it, but even the city won’t cart it away. One night you dream of attaching hundreds of balloons to it and floating it away, but it crashlands in a neighbors yard, and the police ticket you for littering.

At last, you take a sledgehammer to it and place it in a dumpster, carefully concealing it beneath old wallboard and flooring. Take it from me; this last approach is desperate but works.

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