The woodworking machinery at the Highland Folk Museum

Another interesting thing at the joiners shop was the woodworking machinery, most of which seems to have been belt driven, either by means of water power, steam power, or hand power! A far cry from the modern workshop.

Belt driven table saw and bandsaw

The bandsaw is a three-wheel version, which doesn’t seem to be very common. It is marked as THE “STAR”, and made by Jonas Woodhead and Sons, of Leeds (manufacturer of ironwork, axles and springs for road vehicles). There doesn’t seem to be much information, but others have suggested these saws (hand cranked) were manufactured by Consett Iron Co., Ltd. (Consett, County Durham) in the late 19th century.

The “STAR” bandsaw

The post drill press is a hand-powered piece, the “Advance No.12”, made by Silver Manufacturing Co. of Salem Ohio. There was even a manual mortiser, which likely would have improved how quickly mortises could be made.

Were we more attune to what we built in earlier days, when we relied less on electrically powered machinery?

A simple British workbench

When we build a modern workbench for our workshops, however large or small they are, we likely all pour over the myriad of books by Christopher Schwarz, and spend copious amounts of time thinking about what wood to use. Should it be all maple? Should I use a leg vise, or a vintage Record? Should it be perfect? The reality is that perfection seems to be a modern affliction. A workbench was always a utilitarian structure, something upon which to work, with tools. Indeed furniture itself was never as precise or aesthetically pleasing as it has been in the past century. Below is a simple workbench from the June 21, 1895 issue of English Mechanic and World of Science (No. 1578, pp.386-387). There are two other benches described before this one, a “work-bench for amateur joiner“, and a joiners bench (a mixture of European and English style benches), but this is the most relevant. Interestingly, this bench was the Third prize in what seems to have been a regular competition for readers.

English workbench late 19th century

Here is the description of the bench (with comments in blue), designed by W.T. Graham of Hackney Wick, London.

The bench which I will now describe should be made of yellow deal, with the exception of the working parts-viz., the lug with the leg screwed to it; the bench screw and its various parts; the bench-stop and also the various pins about the bench. Theses should be made of hardwood; either beech, oak or birch will do.

The term”deal” is used in traditional British woodworking, to describe softwood from various conifers. Red deal is Scots pine, whereas yellow deal is typically white fir/spruce fir. The term lug used here seems to relate to the leg vise, instead of a more traditional bench lug. Unlike many modern benches, which are predominantly made of hardwood, this uses a combination of both softwoods and hardwoods. Three of the legs are softwood, with only the leg supporting the leg vise being hardwood.

I give a list of the sizes of the stuff :- The top 6ft. by 1ft.9in. by 2in., clamped and tenoned at each end. Three legs 2ft.8in. by 4in. by 2in.; the third leg and also the lug 2ft.8in. by 8in. by 2in., both tapering down from 1ft. from the top, and the lug 7½” shorter than the leg. This leg to be secured to the top by two 3/8in. bolts and the bench screw-block to be secured to the leg by two more. Four cross-rails, 3in. by 2in., to be provided, two on each end, to be dovetailed and screwed to the legs top and bottom.

What is interesting here, apart from the fact that the leg associated with the leg vise is hardwood, is the fact that it has the same basic tapered shape as the leg vise. The top seems as though it is one solid piece that has been prevented from movement through the use of breadboard ends.

Some difficulty may be had with the top rail where it joins the hardwood leg. This should be a tenon joint, and the top rail checked out where it comes against the bench-screw block.

Two side rails, same size, are also used to join the ends firmly together. These to be tenoned into the legs. Also two pieces of stuff to be used in the front – same dimensions – and tenoned into the top and rail. These also have rails between them : sizes 2in. by 2in., leaving spaces between A and B. A is a space to put small pieces of board endwise to hold them while being sawn. B is a drawer running on guides screwed to the top. I have left out a handle to the drawer, and have shown the top of the drawer cut away to receive the hand. This is much the best way, there being no handle to catch in the worker’s clothes.

In this bench I have put two braces, 3in. by 2in. each, which greatly strengthens it. To the learner these are awkward joints but the braces can be left out, and the two pieces of stuff, F and G, go right down to the rails, if the worker does not feel equal to it.

There didn’t seem to be any hesitation to use braces, on any of these benches. This may have been derived from the fact that the leg material was only 2in. thick.

A job which takes some care is the sword C. This should be a straight-grained hardwood, tenoned into the lug, going right through the leg, and secured by the pin inserted through D. Another similar convenience is the side-screw, E. This is made of beech, a screw running through one and butting against the other. The screw is made with a screw-box; but as this is a tool seldom used by carpenters, amateur or otherwise, I recommend you to buy a pair of hand-screws, price about 8d.; saw of what you want, and tenon them, in their places. The bench should have 1in. boarding nailed on the rails, 9in. from the ground. This space is very convenient for some of the larger tools, hand-screws, etc. A bench-stop made of beech, 2in. by 2in., is the cheapest, and in some cases the best. Four angle-irons, 4in. by 1in. by ¼in., should be used to secure the bench to the floor.

I guess the use of the term “sword” its appropriate because it’s almost like the piece is stabbing the bench. We know it better as the parallel device, or maybe “runner”. It isn’t quite apparent as to the nature of the side-screw, although it appears to be used to manipulate the board being held by the leg vise.

In conclusion, I may say that this will be a very strong and serviceable bench, not quite so large as the ordinary carpenter’s bench, and therefore more suited to the amateurs’s very often limited room.

Roubo’s other bench

André Jacob Roubo’s major work, L’Art du Menuisier, (The Art of the Carpenter) is quite well known, but there is also a supplementary work, L’Art du layetier published in 1782. This is a more obscure work which I found looking through the French website Gallica. A Layetier seems to be known as a trunkmaker, i.e. a person who makes chests and wooden boxes, typically used as packaging. The workbench described is quite interesting because it is one of the few workbenches of note where the cavity below the bench top is enclosed. Below is an extract from Plate 1, showing the bench.

Extract from Plate 1, showing the trunkmakers bench

The text described this bench as having a (solid) top made of elm or beech, 6-7 feet in length, 18-20 inches wide, and a thickness of 4 inches. The top is supported by legs made of oak, 3″ thick and 4″ wide. Held together by mortice and tenon joints, the stretchers are 2″ by 4″. The boards for the bottom are tongue and grooved, and all but the front are enclosed with boards nailed into the bench. On the left side of the bench-top is a metal bench stop (Fig.4, Fig.2A). At the opposite side is a square hole which is used to insert a small anvil, or iron block (used to rework the tips of nails). It has a traditional wooden hook on the front of the bench (C), and a small drawer (D).

Extract from Plate 3, showing the bench in use, and the back panelling.

From the sketch, it seems as though the bench top is a solid piece, with no holes for bench hooks, nor vices. The legs are attached to the top of the bench with both square and fishtail tenons, but unlike the Roubo carpenters bench, these are not through tenons.

Source of images: / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Is this a bench servant?

In Christopher Schwarz’s new book “The Anarchist’s Workbench“, he briefly describes the workbenches of Dr. Johann Georg Krünitz’s “Ökonomische Encyklopädie“. The picture of the three benches in Krünitz’s work includes what is commonly called a “bench slave“, i.e. a device used to hold up long material that extends beyond the length of the bench. As Mr. Schwarz himself suggested, not exactly an optimal name for a woodworking device. The description of the device in Krünitz’s work describes this device in German as a Knecht, which roughly translates to servant, or farmhand. So could we then change it’s name to bench servant perhaps, or bench-hand?

bench servant
The bench servant

N.B. Further research in the French book “Manuel Complet du Menuisier en Batiments et du Layetier-Emballuer” (1948), calls the device “la servante destinée“, or the maid.

The joiners shop at the Highland Folk Museum

In Scotland you will find Britains first open air museum, the Highland Folk Museum (in Newtonmore). This is an exceptional little museum, well situated and a good way to spend an afternoon. In one of the buildings is the joiners shop, originally from Kingussie, and dating from circa 1897. The joiners shops exists as it would have in the 1930s, with the ground floor used for storing and seasoning lumber, and the upper floor as the workshop. They built everything from wheelbarrow wheels to furniture.

Wooden cart wheel
A wooden wheel sits atop a well worn workbench

The workbenches are original, and of the English Nicholson apron-based form. They are extremely long, extremely utilitarian, and each unique. The foremost bench has a top made of three boards, the one closest to the front of the bench is thickest (ca. 2″), and four large rectangular legs. There is a storage box at the end of the bench, and the workshop is festooned with the tools of a British woodworker – wooden body planes, and saws.

Nicholson workbench
The Nicholson workbenches of the joiners shop

The vise is a wooden leg vise which uses an adapted runner mechanism as a parallel guide. The mechanism runs through the base of a diagonal member on the front of the bench, and looks to use a “U” shaped piece of metal to hold it in place.

The leg vise.

Unlike the clean, neatly arranged hold holes of modern benches, the aprons of these benches look like Swiss cheese. It seems most likely that holes were added where they were needed rather than using pre-existing, uniformly distributed holes. Would anyone do this to their handmade workbench? In addition it looks like the benches are places to hang saws. The workshop had very little in the way of storage cabinets – a few shelves for planes, and some toolboxes, but nothing like the modern cleanly hung cabinets.

Swiss cheese anyone?

The Vernier caliper – scale

One of the more precise calipers for woodworking, or metalworking is the Vernier calliper. These instruments are extremely useful for measuring things that are too fine or awkward to accommodate with standard measuring instruments. Suppose the main scale of a measuring instrument has marks engraved at 1mm intervals. The distance between these marks is so small that it would not be practical to divide them into tenths of millimeters. However there are times when a more precise reading is needed. For instance, validating the thickness of a piece of plywood, or veneer, or the reproduction of wood turnings.

But what does the term Vernier mean? A Vernier is a divided sliding scale, used for measuring fractions of small divisions on a measuring scale, i.e. smaller portions of space than those into which a line is actually divided. Invented in 1631, the Vernier scale is named after its inventor, French mathematician Pierre Vernier (1580-1637). The scale was originally used on astronomical and surveying instruments, barometers, and other scales. A vernier scale can be used in both metric and imperial measurements. Consider the illustration in Fig.1 to help describe the principle of a vernier scale.

Fig.1: Principle of the vernier scale: the vernier scale, and the main scale

Measuring using a vernier scale makes use of two graduated scales, a main (fixed) scale, and an auxiliary sliding scale, the vernier. A typical main scale has graduations for different magnitudes of measurement, for example a metric scale would have cm, mm, ½mm. The purpose of the Vernier scale is to divide the smallest graduation.

The vernier scale is constructed by first taking a length, equal to any number of parts on the main scale – in the example in Fig.1, the length of the Vernier is equal to 9 of the smallest divisions on the main scale. This length is then divided into any number of equal parts, one more or one less than the number into which the same length on the original scale is divided. In Fig.1 the Vernier scale is divided into 10 parts. The length of a unit on the Vernier scale is then 9/10 the size of a unit on the main scale. Each of these ten units on the Vernier represents 1/10th of a unit on the main scale.

A metric Vernier scale, with the main scale marked in millimetres typically has 10 divisions, allowing for mm to be divided by into tenths (or cm into 100ths). An imperial scale with the main scale marked in 1/16 inch intervals typically uses a Vernier scale with 8 divisions, capable of measuring (1/16)(1/8) = 1/128 inch. In some imperial vernier scales, inches on the main scale are divided into 10 parts, each of 4 segments, effectively providing a scale of 1/40 inch.

For example, in Fig.2, the Vernier has 25 divisions, whereas the main scale has 24 divisions for the same length, each 1/40″ in length. One of the 25 parts on the Vernier would therefore be 1/25 of 1/40, or 1/1000 of an inch.

Fig.2: An imperial 1/1000 inch Vernier scale

Here is an example of using a Vernier scale. The point we are trying to measure is at the 0 position on the Vernier (m). If the 0 position were to coincide with a line on the main scale, then this would be the reading. However because m sits in between 1.45 and 1.475, the vernier scale is used to determine the fractional value.

To calculate the fractional component, we find the mark on the Vernier scale that coincides with a mark on the main scale. On the Vernier scale in Fig.2, line 12 coincides with x on the main scale – this is the vernier mark. To align line 11 on the Vernier with y on the main scale would mean moving the vernier to the left 1/25 of a main-scale division. Similarly, the 0 line on the Vernier would have to move 12/25 of a main scale division to align with 1.45 on the main scale. This means that the position shown (m) is 12/25 of a main-scale division to the right of 1.45. The reading of the vernier is then 1+0.4+0.05+0.012=1.462 units.

Ancient yews

When we think of old trees, we often think of the towering redwoods of the west coast of North America. We don’t often think of small trees as being old. When we went to Scotland a couple of summers ago we visited the Fortingall Yew, which is an ancient European yew in the church yard of the village of Fortingall (Perthshire). It is one of the oldest trees in Europe, and arguably the oldest identified tree in Britain.

It is somewhere between 2000-3000 years old, and although now a series of small trees, it once had a girth of 52 feet. This was recorded by Daines Barrington in 1769.

I measured the circumference of this yew twice, and therefore cannot be mistaken, when I inform you that it amounted to fifty-two feet. Nothing scarcely now remains but the outward bark, which hath been separated by the centre of the tree’s decaying within these twenty years. What still appears, however, is thirty-four feet in circumference.

Daines Barrinton, “A Letter to Dr.William Watson, F.R.S. from the Hon. Daines Barrington, F.R,S. on the Frees which are supposed to be indigenous in Great Britain” Philosophical Transactions, The Royal Society Transactions,, 59 (1769).

Over time the heartwood had been lost (natural decay caused the centre of the tree to rot to ground level by 1770. It was also seen in the same year by Thomas Pennant the traveller on his first tour of Scotland, published in 1771 as A Tour in Scotland. He notes the tree measured 56½ feet in circumference. Hardly a shadow of former self now… but how often do you see a living entity that is thousands of yeas old?

The Mayo block plane

This is an interesting little block plane that seems quite rare. The M.C. Mayo tool company was a manufacturing company in Boston, Massachusetts, established by Matthias C. Mayo. The company is predominantly known for its Mayo’s Patent Plow Plane (Patent No.167,772), released in 1875, which was a curvaceous plow plane painted with gold and embellished with Brazilian rosewood. Mayo seemed to be a little egocentric, casting the side of the plane with the phrase “The Boss Plane”, and casting “M”, “A”, “Y”, and “O” atop each of the thumbscrews, one letter per thumbscrew.

The long version of the block plane

There is little written about the block plane. From limited literature, it seems that it is the only plane manufactured apart from the plow, built from 1875-1879. It is a non-adjustable, low-angle, iron block plane, approximately 7¾” in length with a width of 2″. It is a very curvy plane, as both front and rear ends of the plane have rounded corners, and the lever cap is humped (I imagine to provide support for the palm of the users hand). There is a finger depression at the front of the plane, and a decorative, scalloped edge separating the front of the plane from its throat.

The most unique features of this block plane are the integral lever cap, held in place by a rod (which interleaves through the lever cap), the “M” on the brass lever cap screw, and the very fine ridges running lengthwise on the sole. There is no patent related to this plane, and to my knowledge, Mayo only every received the single patent for the plow plane.

The squatier version of the block plane

What’s more interesting is that a little searching reveals a second, shorter version of this plane. The nose of the plane has been reduced in size, and the scalloped edge replaced by a much simpler curve.

The thing about Baltic Birch

Baltic Birch (BB) has nothing to do with a type of birch tree, but more to do with a type of plywood manufactured in the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea, with the two biggest producers being Russia, and Finland. In Europe it is mostly used for cabinet making. In addition to Baltic Birch, there is also a product called Finnish Birch which is generally quite thin, and used for tasks such as building aircraft, musical instruments etc, with the 3-ply plywood version as thin as 1/64″ (0.4mm) (typically available from aircraft parts suppliers like Aircraft Spruce Canada).

Baltic Birch is composed of multiple layers of 1.5 mm-thick solid birch veneer, cross-banded, and laminated with exterior grade adhesive. Why spend more on BB ply versus cheaper versions? Firstly, BB produces a void-free core which makes it better from a fastener holding ability, and produces cleaner joinery. The face veneers are also thicker than traditional cabinet-grade plys. Finally, the exposed edges of BB are aesthetically pleasing and don’t need to be covered up. 

Baltic Birch ply comes in 1525×1525mm sheets, which approximates to 5’×5’, and is often sold as 3/4” ply in North America (although one can now find 4’×8’ sheets). But here’s the thing – it isn’t. It is only manufactured in metric, so the 3/4″ equivalent is roughly 11/16”, or 18mm, whereas 3/4” = 19.05mm. 1mm may not seem like much but it does make a difference in cabinetry which takes board thickness into account. The trick when measuring out is to remember this, and either work completely in millimetres, or convert to inches. 

What’s the deal with “one-time” tools?

There are some companies that just do great work in tool innovation. Woodpeckers seems to be such a company. They exude innovation, with some very cool measuring tools, jigs and fixtures. They even manufacture in the USA. There is only one problem, most of their tools are part of their “OneTIME” tool program, where they manufacture a tool for a certain period, and then “retire” the tool. It seems like an odd way to do business. Imagine the effort involved in designing and then manufacturing these awesome tools, then selling just a small quantity. A case in point is the “MT Center Gauge & Doweling Jig”. It seems like a really cool jig, but the order deadline was Nov.11, 2019. With any of these tools, you don’t exactly have a lot of time to think about ordering one, before it becomes EXPIRED. Weirder still is that the expired tools are often still on display on retailers websites. Is this some cruel way of saying “hey, see what you missed out on?”. Talk about rubbing it in your face.