Tool review – Japanese mill-tooth file

One of my favourite tools at the moment is the Japanese mill-tooth file, which I really prefer to call a rasp, because it has a similar effect – its capable of hogging off a lot of material (or even more effectively, a planing rasp). I like it because it works as though the face of the file is covered with hundreds of tiny plane edges, essentially shearing material off. These files are made by Japanese company Iwasaki, and are considered sculpting tools.

The face of each tooth on the file is formed to allow for a mini chip-breaker. This helps break the shavings off and helps prevent the file from clogging. Here is a close-up of a tooth from the Iwasaki website:

The type of shavings produced depends on the type of wood being filed. I have noticed that harder woods like Ash tend to produce small shavings, whereas softer woods like cherry produce long spiralled shavings.

Ash versus cherry shavings

Supposedly, the files produce a surface equivalent to using 280 grit sandpaper. Below is a piece of ash which has been filed. The surface is extremely smooth. The file works well moving 90° across the grain, or diagonally. They work well in places too tight for a  plane can’t get too.

I have one flat file, but will likely get a couple more. Lee Valley carries a bunch of different types, but for more sculpting oriented tools head over to Dieter Schmid Fine Tools, or Highland Woodworking.


The magnetic knife holder

Apart from the long knives in my kitchen, I also needed somewhere for the paring knives etc. to live.  Enter the wooden magnetic knife holder from Beau Grain in Quebec. I have one of the older ones, with two pieces held together by a sliding dovetail. The question was always how to attach it to a backsplash made of stainless steel tiles. I honestly didn’t want to drill through the tiles and mess them up, so it took a while to come up with a solution.

The solution? Build a frame to attach the knife holder to the bottom of the cabinets, thereby avoiding damaging the tiles and allowing the knife holder to be offset from the wall, making it easier to grab the knives. It also makes the knife holder more of an object of interest, rather than *just* a knife holder. The holder is made of cherry, the knife holder birds-eye maple.

Why I like Festool

I bought my first Festool years ago, the TS55 Plunge cut circular saw, in combination with a bunch of guide rails. I don’t have a huge workshop, so most of my major cutting is done outside. For straight cuts of material like plywood, it’s *amazing*. I also bought a CT Mini dust extractor, which was a great size for my workshop. A short while later they were recalled because they didn’t have the proper Canadian CSA labels or something. I arranged to have it picked up to return, and Festool sent me as a replacement the CT 26, with 2½ times the capacity. It’s nice that they upgraded with a better model. Since then I have added a multifunction table, a router, and two sanders: the Rotex RO125, and the DTS 400 orbital sander, which I acquired recently.

Now why when I have so many handtools, do I own power tools? Largely because some of the work I do is around the house – trim, built-in bookcases, a fireplace mantle, doors, etc. I don’t necessarily want to spend more time than I have to hand-sanding something. Even when I do more (hopefully) commissioned work once I retire, I want the convenience of good quality power tools. So why Festool? I get that they are expensive, but honestly they stand behind their products, and the workmanship is exceptional.

Take the sanders. I *never* liked sanders before I bought the Festool RO125. Most sanders on the market are not really that great. Yet using the RO125, in combination with the dust extractor, means that I can sand anywhere in the house without a spect of dust getting in the way. It is a beast, capable of sanding Ipe, stripping layers of paint, or producing an uber smooth finish on cherry. Now I bought the DTS400 because it was on sale at Atlas Machinery (floor model, moving sale). I’m using it specifically for finish sanding at the moment, with 220 and 400 grit paper. It gets into those places where the RO125 just can’t.

Now, not all my power tools are Festool – I have some Milwaukee tools, a DeWalt mitre saw from ages ago, a Bosch table saw, and a Makita drill. All good utilitarian power tools – but for really precise work, I prefer Festool. Festool is a dependable brand, who produce tools that work consistently, and robustly. These are lifetime tools.

The humble 2 by 4

I grew up with metric measures, but it wasn’t until I started working with dimensional lumber that I came to appreciate the value of the imperial system of measures. Some people believe that just because something comes in multiples of 10, that it must be inherently better. I don’t believe so. Let’s take the case of the humble 2×4, the standard piece of building lumber in North America. In Australia a similar piece of lumber would be classified as 45mm ×90mm. The reality is that in metric measures, everything is typically expressed in millimetres. The problem is that mm are so small that it is hard to visualize, it is much easier to understand what an inch is. Go to a lumber store and order a 2×4×8, and everyone understands what that is.

The humble 2×4 is of course not actually 2 inches by 4 inches. This is the nominal dimension used when a tree is cut into dimensional lumber after it is felled. Dry the wood in a kiln, and it shrinks, less so in length, but considerably in the other two directions. Then the wood is dressed, by planing. The result is that a 2×4 becomes a 1½×3½. Easier to remember 2×4 than 1½×3½ though. Other dimensions of lumber dry differently. Typically a 1×6 is actually ¾” by 5½”.

An old vs new 2×4 (in Toronto). The old 2×4 is 3-11/16 x 1-3/4

In the early years of the lumber industry in North America, each region had its own specifications for lumber size, largely because lumber was sourced locally. As lumber began to be produced for different markets (e.g. domestic cities, export), a standard had to be considered. The Forest Service of the U.S. Dept of Agriculture produced an article in 1964 titled History of Yard Lumber Size Standards. It discusses the historical aspects of lumber dimensions, and is quite complicated.  In the early 1900s, the common thickness for a dressed 1″ board was 13/16″. By 1929 this had changed to a standard 25/32″. Then on April 30, 1956, the American Lumber Standards Committee voted to establish ¾ inch as the standard dressed dry thickness, where it has remained to this day (there was an attempt in 1964 to modify the thickness again to 5/8″).



Making a solid knife block

I have a bunch of nice kitchen knives, but have never liked the singular knife block I have in my kitchen. It came with the original kitchen knife set I bought 16-odd years ago. Since then I have added both vintage, German and Japanese knives to my kitchen. Now I have a magnetic wooden bar for under the kitchen counter (still to be installed of course), for the smaller knives, but what to do with the large knives, and the cleaver (also a vintage find)? Buying a knife block for a custom set of knives doesn’t work, and the heft and length of the knives means a magnetic knife block is out of the question. So a while back I saw a vertical knife block which seemed to fit the bill… a “solid” block made of walnut with enough room for about 12 knives. Only problem? C$270. Way too much, and on closer inspection, it was made with ¾” walnut joined to make it 12″ wide. So, I had a piece of walnut 1″ thick that was sitting around in the basement, so I made my own.

The finished knife block.

This block is approximately 10″×10″×4″ deep. The block is made of four pieces of walnut, all from the same slab of 1″ thick material. The knife slots are made by separating the pieces with ¼”×5/8″ strips of wood – some of darker walnut, others from a piece of pear I picked up recently. Pears and walnuts make a good combination right? I like the contrast, but you could use all walnut if you want, of any wood for that matter.

Pear, dark walnut, and pear again.

This gives six slots, which are large – one is for the cleaver, the others can be shared. Splitting the slots too much, takes away the generic nature of the block, and as the knives sit vertically, there shouldn’t be too much interference if two knives sit in each slot.

Making the block is a simple matter of making sure the four 10″×10″ pieces are all aligned properly then gluing the strips onto the back of each of three of the pieces. I made the separator strips, by running the pear and walnut planks through the planer to get the right thickness, then cut them to size on my table-saw.

The four segments after glueing the spacer strips.

Once the strips are glued on, the four individual pieces can be registered, and then glued together as a block.

The glued block before finishing.

When the glue is dry, I sanded it using my Festool RO125, using 120, 220, and 320 grit paper, and then gave it two thin coats of Tried and True, Original Wood Finish.Currently home to eight knives and a vintage cleaver (organized from largest in the back, to smallest in the front).

Overhead view of the finished knife block.

You could also incorporate magnets into the front of the block to hold a line of small knives if you wish.

A *good* deal on files and rasps

Was down at Atlas Machinery on Queen St. West this afternoon, buying a sanding pad for my Festool sander, and came across this great selection of new “old stock” files and rasps. These have been sitting in the basement for 40-odd years. And talk about a great deal!

I bought a couple of 12″ Tome Feteira smooth cabinet rasps for C$7.50 a piece (a box of 6 is C$30), and a 14″ 2nd cut file made by Stubs, (Lancashire, England) also for C$7.50. Stubs stopped making files in about 1990.

So I ended up buying five files and three cabinet rasps. Sightly *overkill*, but these are fantastic. The files will be perfect for sharpening axes, scrapers, and the like. They are only in-store, but if you’re interested, call them up, I’m sure they would ship.





Aluminum block planes

Aluminum block planes are the odd ducks of block planes. The problem with early cast-iron planes was the fact that were they to be accidentally dropped on the floor, they likely would not survive due to their brittleness. Pressed-steel block planes helped alleviate this problem, however there is still the issue of rust. So for a period of time, manufacturers turned towards building aluminum planes. Aluminum as a metal was first isolated by Danish physicist and chemist Hans Christian Ørsted in 1825, although in a impure form. German chemist Friedrich Wöhler furthered this work, isolated aluminum in 1827. French geologist Pierre Berthier discovered aluminium in bauxite ore. However, large scale production of aluminum was not possible until the development of the Hall-Heroult process – American chemist Charles Martin Hall and  French chemist Paul Héroult  developed the process simultaneously in 1886. Their process extracted aluminum from aluminum oxide, however it consumed a substantial amount of electricity. In 1888, Austrian engineer Karl Josef Bayer developed a process by which alumina could be extracted from bauxite.

The 1890s saw the production of the first aluminum boats, and 1899 saw Karl Benz present the first sports can with an aluminum body. By 1915, the first all metal plane, the Junkers J1 had appeared, made of Duralumin, an aluminum alloy which included copper, magnesium and manganese. After WW1, the use of aluminum in consumer products increased. By the mid-1920s, Stanley began production of its bench plane series using aluminum – the A4, A5, and A6. The Stanley A18, an aluminum version of the No.18 knuckle-cap block plane was produced during the two world wars from 1925-1935. In the bench planes, the bodies and frogs were made of aluminum, whereas on the A18, only the actual body of the plane was aluminum, with the remainder constructed of nickel-plated metals.

A BOSTON aluminum block plane


The core benefits of aluminum planes are: (i) they are light weight, (ii) they don’t rust, and (iii) they don’t crack or break when dropped. However they have an equal number of limitations. Firstly, when they appeared, they were 30% more expensive. In 1926, the A18 sold for $3.50, while the No.18 sold for $3.00. This was likely one of the factors of their limited success, that and their introduction before the Great Depression. Next, because aluminum oxidizes, when the planes are used, they leave black marks on the wood, discolouring it (the same thing happens with aluminum ladders). Finally, because aluminum is a soft material, its sole is susceptible to scratching, and denting. Aluminum is often thought of as being rust-resistent, however corrosion can actually be a big problem in aluminium blocks. One reason for this is that contact between aluminium and steel can cause galvanic corrosion.

The aluminum block planes include the following:

  • BOSTON No.1
  • BOSTON No.2
  • BOSTON No.2A
  • UTIL Plane (Chicago)
  • Foster Mfg. Co. No.1(?) (1 Kinsey, Buffalo NY)
  • Stanley No.A18

For some of the planes, such as the UTIL, and Foster, there is little information. Foster Mfg. Co. sold woodworking machinery for the home user in the late 1940s (the company was gone by 1953), and so this hand plane seems to be a one-off? Maybe a give-away? They didn’t manufacture any of the tools they sold.

There were also a couple of planes from the Stanley Model Shop, aluminum versions of the No.110, and No.220 (they were never put into production). Stanley may have produced the greatest number of aluminum planes in total, also producing A4, A5, and A6 bench planes and the A45 combination and A78 rabbet planes.

P.S. I wanted to post some images of aluminum degradation, but none of my aluminum block planes have any!