Long lasting tool or cheaper import?

In the last year I have read a number of forum posts where people ask questions like “Should I buy a Lie Nielsen or Veritas or WoodRiver plane?”. There isn’t really an easy answer. If working on cost alone, it would be easy to choose the one with the lowest price, but there are other factors involved. Tools that are manufactured in mass quantities overseas do cost less, partially because the cost of labour is less (but growing). However overseas manufacturing can come with its own baggage – environmental impact? workplace safety? When you buy a tool manufactured in North America you are helping foremost to employ people. People who have a job contribute to local economies, which in turn stops smaller towns from disappearing because people have to move away. Small manufacturing companies often contribute back to their local community, and obtain parts/goods from other local companies. It is a cyclic process, and sending manufacturing offshore brings more harm than good.

Manufacturing quality tools costs money – it’s not just the cost of manufacturing the tool (material and labour), but also the cost of design and innovation, and the quality of materials being used. Let’s look at cost by exploring the No.4 plane. Here are the current prices for three manufacturers planes:

WoodRiver (China) US$145.00
Veritas (Canada) US$209.00
Lie Nielsen (USA) US$300.00

There is obviously a price differential. But what are you getting for that price? The price is not just the material value of the item. There is a US$64 difference between the WoodRiver and Veritas planes. Why? The Veritas has “out of the box” usability, and innovation. The No.4 bench plane has a all-in-one rear tote and adjustable frog assembly that extends all the way to the sole, and a Norris-style adjustment mechanism. For $279 you can get a Veritas® customizable smoother, with adjustable mouth. Innovation is not possible without investment.

Eric Sloane once said “Most of today’s tools have the cheapness of mass production, the old hand-made tools often had design that made them examples of fine art.” The planes of Lie Nielsen and Veritas are indeed works of art. Yes, if you are starting out in woodworking, you may not be able to afford a cabinet full of LN/V planes. But do you need them all straight away? Likely not. Pick a workhorse, save up, buy a quality tool. Then as time goes on supplement it with another one. If cost is an issue, then it is possible to buy a vintage No.4 handplane in reasonable condition, for anywhere between $40-$100. Sure, it too will need some work, maybe an updated blade from Veritas or Hock? Finally there is the matter of value. One would like to think that investing in a quality tool will mean that it will maintain its value, or increase in value over time. The same can not be said of mass-produced tools.

Let’s call the extra cost of buying North American “social responsibility”, or an investment in our children’s future.

Without wood

The heft and feel of a well-worn handle,
The sight of shavings that curl from a blade;
The logs in the woodpile, the sentiment of huge
beams in an old-fashioned house;
The smell of fresh cut timber and the pungent
fragrance of burning leaves;
The crackle of kindling and the hiss of burning logs.
Abundant to all the needs of man,
how poor the world would be
Without wood.

Everard Hinrichs

Woodworking books – a place to start

If you are starting out in woodworking, a good place to gain an understanding of the history of the craft, and of wood itself are the books of Eric Sloane (1905-1985). Eric Sloane was born Everard Jean Hinrichs in 1905 in New York City. Sloane became enamoured by the life of the early American farmer, and while restoring a farmhouse in rural Connecticut in the early 1950s began to investigate the building techniques they used. At a book sale, he came across an account of farm life in the early 1800s, told by 15 year old Noah Blake. This diary became the basis for his book “Diary of an Early American Boy: Noah Blake 1805“. Sloane had incredible talent as an artist, weaving a visual story around the diary entries. His books are filled with detailed pen-and-ink sketches. He wrote two books related to woodworking: “a Reverence for Wood“, and “a Museum of Early American Tools“.

sloaneR4wood sloanemuseum

In a Reverence for Wood, Sloane which explores the role wood played in the development of early America. The book takes an interesting approach, starting from 1965, and winding the clock back 300 years. The book begins with Sloane pulling down the old barn on his farm. Through this process he discusses the “anatomy of wood warpage”, the means of dating an old building, and joint pinning using hand-cut pegs. 1865 sees the logging of the lands, the making of charcoal, and fencing. From 1765 to the American Civil War describes the age of wood, exploring the use of trees as food providers and resources for tools, and shelter. Finally 1665 looks at how native Americans used American birch to build canoes, and the utility of Sassafras and Sycamore. The book ends with a beautifully illustrated glossary of American Trees depicting bark, leaves and fruit.

The second book, a Museum of Early American Tools, covers building tools and methods and is a great book for obtaining an understanding of how tools in America evolved prior to the American Civil War. The first portion of the book deals with the axe – the best tool for coping with the endless tracts of forest encountered by the first pioneers. The remainder of the book explores farm and kitchen implements; and the tools of curriers, wheelwrights, coopers, blacksmiths, coachmakers, loggers, tanners, and many other craftsmen of the pre-industrial age. Below is a sample of Sloane’s ink pen work.


An excerpt from “a Museum of Early American Tools”

Eric Sloane’s books are a mixture of folklore, architecture and history. In his lifetime he wrote over 40 books, on topics such as weather, camouflage, “Camouflage Simplified”, and a collection of books looking back on America’s past. His skill as an artist is obvious, few if any have come close to the impact.

The mighty redwoods

The tallest trees on the planet. Before the settlement of the west coast of North America, there were an estimated 1.9 million acres of redwood forests. In the 19th century, the giant redwoods of the west coast started to be logged. In an 1884 issue of The American Architect and Building News, the author of an article on redwoods “And so I ask, How long will the redwoods last? A few years at most. But in that brief time men will build their castles and their thrones of power upon the ruins of this mighty race of giants, with the one regret that there are no more to conquer!


Now *that’s* a saw, at 32 foot in length.

One of the first uses of these magnificent giants was shingles. That’s right, they chopped up those magnificently massive trees to make shingles (well actually they apparently used the tree limbs, which were as big as normal trees themselves). Why? Well, in the waning years of the 19th century, there was a huge need for building materials for expansion. Houses needed lumber, shingles and lath. And redwood shingles were insect, and rot resistant – . By 1905 85-90% of the redwood forests remained. This was largely due to the manual labour involved in logging the giant trees. In the June 1911 issue of Popular Mechanics, it was said that “So far that the present generations are concerned, the redwood forests are practically inexhaustible“. They estimated that there were 538,000 acres, of which 62,000 had been felled in the previous 60 years. In 1925, 67% of the original redwood stands remained uncut. Mechanization would change all that.


Hauling logs, over-stacked maybe?

In 1910, mills in California produced 543,493,000 feet of redwood lumber. By 1953, over 1,000,000,000 board feet of redwood was being produced annually. Now there is approximately 2% of the original old-growth redwoods remaining. Food for thought on how we continue to ravage the planet.

Ipe ≠ workable

The thing with Ipe is that it is NOT a workable wood. The front porch stair railing was a composite of 2″×2″ Ipe pieces joined using butt joints. The problem with Ipe is that you can’t just use any old glue, and complex joints are difficult, to say the least. When I built it years ago I used dowels and polyurethane glue, which lasted for a time, but as half of the railing is exposed to the elements, not forever. Ipe is too dense, and oily to use normal glues on. Now rebuilding the piece, I have endeavoured to make it more robust. How?

One possibility is using large robust fasteners – While stainless steel screws work for holding-down applications and pre-drilled Ipe, they do not have the strength to hold in end-grain (i.e. they may shear off). Using a GRK structural fastener requires precise pre-drilling. In normal wood, the screw body compresses the wood as it winds in, and the threads cut into the wood fibre. Not so in Ipe end-grain. I tried screwing a No.8 GRK screw into end grain, in a pre-drilled hole (the width of the screw shaft), and it burst the end of the 2″×2″ (see photo below). The trick may be to predrill just shy of the thread width of the screw threads. The problem with Ipe is that the wood is just too dense.


Careful using screws (left), and gluing with epoxy (right)

A better way is to use 2-part epoxy glue, and dowels. I’m using JB Weld epoxy, and 3/8″ dowels 2″ in length. It may also help that these pieces of Ipe have been exposed to the elements for 10 years, so some of the oil has dried out. I have joined a number of the butt joints in this manner and is seems to produce a fairly robust joint. If the wood is fairly new, I would advocate cleaning the area with some form of solvent prior to gluing. Don’t both using water-based glues – they don’t work with these types of tropical hardwood.

The most wicked of woods


So simple a word, for so indestructible a wood species. Ipe, or Brazilian Walnut comes from Central and South America, and has a Janka hardness of 3510. So, it’s not the hardest of woods – Lignum vitae has a value of 4500, yet there are few decks made of Lignum vitae. I first encountered Ipe about 10 years ago when I replaced my cedar deck with a deck made of 1″×6″ Ipe, thinking it would be almost maintenance free. At that time, the use of tropical hardwoods for decks was not that common in Toronto. Installation using stainless steel screws, and pre-drilling the wood was easy. I also installed the Ipe on my covered porch, and fashioned porch railings, and balusters from 2″×2″ Ipe.


The porch


Things are of course easier now a decade later – Ipe boards come pre-grooved, and there are a multitude of hidden fasteners. But some things have stayed the same. The upside to Ipe is its longevity. The downside is maintaining its look. Initially I tried Cabot’s Australian Timber Oil, containing both linseed and tung oils. It required oiling twice a year, and really didn’t look good beyond a couple of years. An Ipe deck gets dirty, just like any deck would – especially when covered with pollen in spring, and decomposing leaves in the fall. Ipe decks look *great* in a climate where it’s always sunny. The photos below show pieces of Ipe after weathering for ten years.


Weathering of Ipe (10 year old)

The problem with winter is snow and ice, which act like a rasp, abrading off any finish. Tom Silva summed it up nicely on the This Old House website when asked about finishing an Ipe deck:

I wouldn’t finish it at all. Ipe is a Brazilian hardwood that’s so dense it doesn’t absorb finish as well as the softwoods on most decks. In fact, none of the deck finishes I’ve tried on ipe has lasted to my satisfaction. But that’s okay; the wood is so durable it doesn’t need a finish to protect it. 

So my deck was replaced by an aluminum one (see a previous post), and the Ipe boards became an outdoor wall, and is slowly turning gray. Surprisingly the Ipe on the covered porch has faired much better. I give it a yearly coat of tung oil, and it is still a beautiful warm colour. So why is Ipe wicked? Ipe is wicked because it is terrible to work with. Ipe will eat woodworking tools. Crosscuts are one thing, rip cuts a completely different matter.

The horrors of wood shrinkage

Blocks of wood as side tables seem to be all the rage at the moment. But if you are paying good money for a solid “side-table”, the last thing you want is for the wood to split. Loss of water means that wood shrinks. Shrinkage generally takes a circular direction around the tree, the fibres of the outer rings contract together and clefts (or radial cracks) open up, as is shown quite clearly in the picture below. This is because the circumference of the wood (tangential shrinkage) shrinks more than the radius (radial shrinkage).


Block wood side-table, from a spa in Iceland. This might likely be a native species, and seems to be older growth.

The reality is, in blocks of wood, it is hard to stop this cracking occurring, unless you choose a wood species with a low tangential shrinkage factor, or one which has been properly seasoned, or if you’re lucky comes from old-growth (and reclaimed) lumber. Sure, to some cracks may add a level of character, but at the price they charge for these blocks ($250-400), how much character do you really want? Below are some worse-case scenarios of logs left outside for a 12-16 month period. Radial cracks from tangential shrinkage are always easy to see. Radial shrinkage manifests itself in a manner whereby the radius of the log is reduced, and the space between the wood and the bark increases, allowing the latter to fall off.


Radial cracks in elm and maple logs