Book Review: The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees

It is rare to find a book dedicated to one type of tree: the ash, but Robert Penn has done the tree justice in his book The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees (Particular Books, 2015). Ash is not that well known in the realms of wood, often overlooked by the likes of oak. In North America it is completely overshadowed by the ubiquitous maple.


Penn explores the use of ash by felling a 90ft high, 130 year old ash and seeing what could be produced from its lumber. The book chronicles his journey within Britain and overseas to find craftsmen who work with ash. Over the course of a year he describes how a number of objects are made and the artisans who make them. Early in the book Penn says that a “zero-waste policy” would steer the project, “to exalt the worth of a single tree”. Did he achieve this? I think so. At the and of the year his tree has yielded 45 different objects are made from a writer’s desk to panelling and kitchen worktops, chopping boards, bowls, spatulas, arrow shafts, tent pegs, a paddle, the list goes on.

The book is extremely well written, with chapters dedicated to a number of objects. The book is a mixture of insight into the working of  artisans such as Robin Wood (Britain’s best known wood turner), and historical discussion. For example, one learns that for 1000 years from AD 500, every person drank and ate every day from a wooden vessel turned on a lathe – the wooden bowl was one of their few possessions – and from 1100-1400 these were made predominantly of ash. There is a chapter about one of Ireland’s native games, hurling, and another that explores the difference between baseball bats made out of ash and maple.  If you are considering taking up woodworking, this book also provides a good insight into the physical characteristics of both trees in general, and ash in particular. Not every item made uses wood from Penn’s tree, sometimes because the tree is not young enough, which is deviates from the adage of “old growth is best for everything”. Sometimes, because threats facing the ash, like the Ash Borer, which often prohibits  transport of wood.

It is heartwarming to read a book dedicated to one type of tree, and the hope is that it will engender a more enlightened view of trees in general. The only thing missing is a few more illustrations. There are a some, but it would have been nice to have a 2-page sketch of all the things crafted out of the tree (maybe on the back of the cover, or a poster?).

Robert Penn, The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees, Particular Books, 2015 (ISBN: 978-1846148422)


Tools of the Trades time again!

Is it already that time again? Sunday, October 2nd, “Tools of the Trades” at the Pickering Recreation Complex: 10am to 3pm.


Time again to spend a couple of hours hunting for some vintage tools. If you are a new to woodworking, looking to buy a set of starter tools for a reasonable price, there is no better show in Canada. You could spend months traipsing through antique stores looking at overpriced junky tools. But why when there is Tools of the Trades? There is always a good selection of vintage Stanley, British planes (Record), wooden planes, and a few Millers Falls and Sargents. Occasionally there are also some Japanese tools, and a *whole* bunch of wooden planes. Always good bargains. In the spring I picked up a set of 13 Henry Taylor set of carving chisels for C$200.



A cool blanket chest

Out and about last Saturday at the Christie Antique & Vintage Show, looking for mid-century stuff, but there was really only a bunch of side-boards. Always a *lot* of vintage pine furniture, especially chest of drawers, and chests, some in good condition, others which have been way too over-varnished. Looking for a chest for my wife’s yarn, and those that stink of varnish just won’t do. But we did end up buying a cool chest made by the Lane Company, of Virginia. However the chest itself was made in Canada by Knechtels Limited.


At sixty years old, it was like it had never been used. It has a unique push-to-open-lock, which does not open from the inside (i.e. not a safety lock), and was actually replaced in 1987. Apparently during the 89  years the chests were manufactured, the company produced approximately 12 million of them, in many different styles: Art Deco, Chippendale, Mid-Century Modern and Danish Modern. This one is Model No. 9571, and seems to identify in the Danish Modern period.


The interesting thing about these chests is the fact that they were advertised as “The Only Tested Aroma-tight Cedar Chest in the World”. In the floor of the chest there is actually a plug where they performed a pressure test. The chests also came with a “moth protection guarantee”.


The chest is constructed of ¾” red cedar, with a veneer of mahogany. It features a tilting tray, and the chest walls are constructed using a lock-mitre joint.


Lane Furniture is still a functioning company, and those with the more dangerous lock can have it replaced with a safety lock for free on their website.



The block plane’s transition from trimming butcher blocks

How did the block plane transition from finishing and resurfacing butchers blocks to its work today? Butchers blocks have been around for hundreds of years, so it is likely that the earliest forms of block planes were wooden, and used only by those engaged in building butcher blocks. Woodworking prior to the 15th century was extremely simple in its design, or maybe crude is a better word.


The top of a century old butchers block showing the end grain, and the dovetail joints holding the pieces together.

Mortice and tenon joints were often straight through, and no attempt was made to hide wood joints. This evolved to the use of “trenails”, wooden round pegs, not dissimilar to dowels, but also visually present, often in decorative patterns. By the 18th century however, the woodworkers craft had evolved to the point where joints were hidden from sight. Tenons no longer projected through, and exposed end grain was avoided in favour of hidden joints. This was in part due to aesthetic appeal – as furniture became more ornate, and polished, the sight of end-grain would have been considered inelegant. This may actually have contributed to a decline in craftsmanship, as few cared about the hidden joints – “out of sight, out of mind”.

The return of quality craftsmanship may have been heralded by the likes of Ernest Gimson (1864-1919), an English furniture designer who is considered one of the more influential designers of the Arts and Crafts period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His designs heralded furniture based on the lines or simplicity and good proportion. The secret dovetail gave way to the through dovetail, the half tenon gave way to the through tenon.

It may have been this resurgence of end-grain that facilitated the need for a tool to trim it. Coincidently, the start of the Arts and Crafts movement circa 1880, coincides with the introduction of metal block planes. The need for block planes (and quality tools in general) waned in the 1950s, as quality joints made way for cheaper, mass produced furniture, often using particleboard (developed in the 1940s). It was not until the 1990s that there was a resurgence in quality block planes.


Interesting workbench features

Old workbenches are always interesting. The benches in the cabinetmakers shop at Upper Canada Village have a number of quirky features. The first of these is the fact that the top is held together using four large through-bolts with square nuts. I imagine the parts of the bench-top were also glued, but it may not have been possible to clamp the pieces together, hence the bolts.


The workbench top itself is approximately 3″ in thickness, and is joined to the legs by means of a blind mortise and tenon, held in place by a wood pin. The base of the workbenches seems to be comprised of two sets of legs with stretchers between them joined using lengthwise stretchers held in place with through mortises, and wooden pegs. One of the benches has a horizontal stretcher under the rear portion of the bench top, with a triangular section that notches into the leg.


The main vise on both benches in the workshop are rectangular  leg-vises which use wooden screws.


The bottom of the leg vise uses an adapted runner type parallel-device with a single series of holes and a steel pin.




Cabinetmakers shop at Upper Canada Village (ii)

The tools used in the shop are of 19th century origin.  From looking around the workshop, it is clear that there are no specific tool cabinets, or even chests. Most tools are stored on simple shelves. Saws consist of both panel saws and frame saws.


The workshop had an extensive collection of moulding planes, which was normal for the time period, and no metal planes, as they only really started coming into the market in the early 1860s.


Many of the tools are manufactured as required – steel for planes and chisels may have been bought, and then handles fashioned by the cabinetmaker. Similarly with planes, blades could be re-used, and new planes fashioned around them. A great example is the array of wooden clamps. The wooden screws would have been made on the foot-lathe, and threads cut using a home-made thread-box.


Another unique feature was the wood bending table. The wood would is boiled for a certain period, usually 1 hour for every 1″ of wood thickness, (not steamed, because the set-up for this would have been much more complex), and then set in the form, which could be easily modified with the addition of new holes.






Cabinetmakers shop at Upper Canada Village (i)

Aside from the mill at Upper Canada Village, the cabinet makers shop was extremely fascinating. Starting in the 1830s, styles of furniture were increasingly adapted to allow for machine-based component manufacture. The growth of factories, meant that by the 1860s, there was a decline in the craft of cabinetmaking, and the independent cabinetmaker was slowly sidelined. Cabinetmakers shops like this one exemplify the workshop before the advent of powered machinery.


This is a working cabinet makers shop, which manufactures anything needed onsite, e.g. windows.


In the back of the shop is a small foot-powered lathe, and a mortising machine.