Monday, March 4, 2013

My luggable toolbox.

Old portable computers used to be referred to as "luggables".  They were portable, sure, but they still weighed a ton.  They weren't something you'd be willing to put on your lap, not if you wanted to stand up again.

Well, that's the category my toolbox falls under.  When I was packing up to move, I decided to take some pictures of what goes into it.  I missed a few things, but here's the basic rundown.  Unfortunately, it's all still packed, and I can't easily dig things out, so some of the details may be wrong, but I'll be pretty close.

The box itself is an old Union brand tool box ("Tool Chest", according to the label) which my father's father used for storing hand saws.  Some of those saws, once they've been restored and sharpened, will make their way back into it.  It's just shy of three feet long, just long enough for my Disston rip saw, and if it was any bigger I might not be able to lift it when it was fully loaded.

The Contents

So what goes into it?  Unfortunately, I'm not able to give you a tool-by tool photo shoot.  Things go in pretty much as they fit, but I shot by categories.  So here's what we've got, roughly bottom to top.


I fit four saws in here.  The top three in the photo fit into the holder in the lid of the box.  From the top of the photo down, they are:
1) A Craftsman "Kromedge" cross-cut saw.  It's 8TPI, and it was indifferently sharpened by a professional with a sharpening machine last summer.  I'll be re-sharpening it by hand, and probably reducing the set, too.  This one was my father's, and may be the one of the reasons I thought I hated hand saws until I'd worked with a newly sharpened saw.  It's better now, but it needs more work.

2) An old Disston.  It's about 5 1/2TPI, filed rip, and it's the first saw I did a restoration on, and the first saw I filed.  It cuts beautifully, and convinced me that hand tools are worth using.

3) A Shark brand Ryoba.  This is a travesty of a tool.  Machine stamped.  Machine filed.  Impulse hardened teeth.  Plastic grip, with plastic pegs holding the blade in.  And yet... I can't work without it.  It cuts so smoothly I sometimes don't need to plane or sand.  It's quick, it's reliable, and I can split a line the width of a two by four in seconds.  I've used it for cutting dovetails in pine and ripping oak.  You might have guessed by now that I'm a little conflicted about this saw, but it's earned its place in my tool box.

4) A gent's saw.  I don't even know the brand... as far as I can tell, the brand name is "Professional Quality", which seems like cheating to me.  It needs sharpening, but it's not bad.  I paid about $15 for it, and it works for small cuts in soft wood.  This one gets tucked in the side of the box wherever it will fit without the teeth hitting anything metal.

Hand Planes & Chisels

Generally speaking I put three planes in this box.  The largest, near the back, is a Ward's Master #4.  It will take a deep cut if I'm careful, or take feathery thin shavings for smoothing.  It's no good as a jointer, but I figure I'm not going to be doing any large scale work straight from this box anyway.  If I replace the box with something larger, I'll add a #6 or so, and if I know I'm going to want a longer plane I can replace this one with a #6.  It'll just about fit.

The second is a Millers Falls #85.  I use it for everything.  It works remarkably well for thinning stock, and of course it's a decent rabbet plane.  There's no depth gauge on it -- it was lost long before I got the thing -- but I can live with that.  That's what a marking gauge is for.

The last is a Craftsman block plane, and I have sort of a hate/hate relationship with it.  I keep it because my father gave it to me, and there are times when nothing else will fit.  But it's got no lateral adjustment at all, and the depth adjustment is so coarse as to be of questionable value.  Hopefully someday I'll get a better one, and this one can retire to a shelf in the shop.

These are the chisels I use most often, ranging from 1" down to 1/4".  They travel rolled up that piece of suede to protect both them and everything around them.  I flop the edge up over the blades, roll it so they can't touch, and then fold the other edge over the whole thing.  Takes about two seconds, and when I get around to sewing pockets in I'll already know where to put them.  The chisel roll goes in the top of the case, more for spacing than any belief that I'll need chisels more often than planes.

Drills and bits

 Yep, that's a Ryobi drill bit roll.  And it's mostly got Ryobi bits in it.  They're OK, and I'm replacing them slowly as they dull. Some of them I haven't used yet,and the masonry bits I'll probably never use, especially with a brace.  But the rest are good enough.

The brace was made by Craftsman, and while the ratchet works beautifully, there's just no way to get it to grip a round drill bit.  It will hold just long enough to get the bit about 1/8" into the wood, then let it start to turn.  But it works like a charm when fitted with an old tapered square shank bit (which I have, I just forgot to get them in the picture), and the hex adapter in the picture lets it drive screws like you wouldn't believe.

The eggbeater, on the other hand, works great, and grips a round-shanked drill bit just fine.  It'll drill up to a quarter inch, and above that I have either an auger bit or an electric drill.

These generally both go as near the top of the box as I can get them, since I want them more often than any other tool except a tape measure.

Marking and Measuring

The six inch try square was cheap at a flea market, and almost square.  I committed a mortal sin by filing it square, and now it's perfect.  

The Empire brand bevel was a complete waste of money, but it's the only one I have, so I use it.  Someday I'll find a better one.  The Empire brand combination square, on the other hand, was a happy surprise:  it was cheap, and it's accurate.  I have no idea how that happened, and I check it regularly to make sure it's staying accurate, but it's good to within the limits of my ability to test, which means it's well within the tolerances of my work.  

The marking gauges... wow.  Opposite ends of the scale, here.  One is a Veritas gauge, and is as good as you'd expect.  The other is a Harbor Freight mortise gauge, and is... well, about as good as you'd expect.  Maybe a bit better.  Filing the pins helped, and I'm learning to make better use of it, but it'll never be my favorite tool.

The last tool here is just a metal rule, marked in metric and imperial, with a cork backing.  It's occasionally useful, and so small and light I just toss it in for lack of a better place to store it.


These are not glamorous tools.  The hammer is ancient, and fits my hand perfectly.  I wouldn't want to use it for driving heavy construction nails, but for anything I'm likely to work with using these tools, it's great.  The mallet... is a Harbor Freight panel mallet.  I use it for tapping chisels, adjusting planes, and generally hitting things I don't want to hit with metal.  It works, and it was so cheap I won't care when it breaks.

The screwdriver, coping saw, and level are all Home Depot specials... cheap and functional, but not very good.  Actually, that's not true:  the screwdriver is as good (and as bad) as any other mid-range screwdriver, and has four bits and two hex drivers.  The level is accurate, light, and has a magnet in one side and a V-shaped trough in the other, so it will stick to or balance on just about anything.  The coping saw pretty much sucks, though.

The spokeshave... well, I don't know whether the problem is it, or me, but it's not very good.  I'm betting on a combination of the two.

Do I really need to say anything about the notebook?


These days I'm mostly using a set of DMT diamond plates for sharpening in the shop, but the stone is more portable.  The paper towel holds some mineral oil, and the foil keeps it off everything else.  I've found that between the stone (it's coarse on one side, fine on the other, and was made by Brookstone so long ago that they no longer admit to having manufactured it) and the strop, I can put a pretty good edge on a chisel or plane iron.

Apron Tools

This is my embarrassment of a shop apron, and the tools that live in it.  As you can see, I shot this picture as I was finishing up a project, and hadn't cleaned the rasp off yet.  Oops.  All simple stuff, here:  the mechanical pencil was cheap and will be easy to replace when I break or lose it.  The 4-in-1 rasp was likewise cheap, and I pay for that every time I use it.  It's not bad enough to throw away yet, though.  The Stanley knife is completely standard.

The square... well, that's a little weird.  It IS square, but the markings are inches on one edge and centimeters on the other, and it's kind of annoying to have to remember which edge I'm looking at.  It was free, though, and I like having a square I can drop in my apron pocket (the bigger one is 16" -- a little long for a pocket!). The tape I picked up for $1 at a flea market, and it's marked only in inches.  No feet, no highlighting for stud distances, just inches and fractions of inches, down to eighths.  Oddly, it matches my other rulers and tapes at 6" and 12", but not at 8".  I have no idea why.  There are a few other marks that aren't quite right, but as long as I use just this tape throughout, it doesn't really matter.

The apron is tiny, and started out life as a tool to hold roofing nails.  It works great.

So there you have it.  That's (almost) everything I put in my tool box when I want to travel and might want to do some carpentry-type woodworking.  You can see in the final picture that I manage to squeeze a few 16" clamps in, but that's about all there's space for.  And as for weight... I can't actually use the handle to lift the box:  the whole top bows, and I'm afraid the handle may break.  Maybe I need a second box, or a real portable chest....

Book Review 3: Civil War Woodworking

The third in a series of book reviews.

The same disclaimer as usual applies:  I am, if no longer a beginner, then nowhere near a master.  Not even a journeyman.  I have a little experience, a lot of theoretical knowledge, and loads of opinions.  So take these reviews with a grain of salt.

First Thoughts:

This review is of Civil War Woodworking, by A. J. Hamler.  It's not quite the same as the other two books I've reviewed so far.  Those were really focused on teaching you about hand tools, and how to use them.  This book, despite discussing projects from before the age of electric power tools, assumes the use of power tools almost exclusively, and doesn't talk much about technique.  Instead, it's a collection of 17 plans for furniture and camp equipment from the era of the American Civil War.  

Overall, I like the book a lot.  Several of the projects are now on my "Try to get around to this sometime" list, and some are on my "Do this as soon as your new shop is set up!" list.  While the suggestions for how to use power tools to achieve results that look like they were done with historically accurate tools occasionally irritate me ("Look, if you'd just use the right tool, you wouldn't HAVE to spend time making it look right!"), that wasn't the focus of the book, and I was able to ignore it. 

Now, on to the details!


The book is basically divided into two main sections, plus a list of references and resources at the end.

The first section begins with historical information, and a discussion about "authenticity" and the idea of a "historically correct" campsite.  I enjoyed the discussion, and found some of it useful in a general sense, but I really wanted a book on woodworking:  Going through the first section (about 10 pages) had me a little concerned that this was going to be a book about reenactment, with a few nods in the direction of woodworking.  Starting around page 11, there's discussion about historical woodworking, and how the stock and tools have changed since the Civil War (spoiler:  not as much as you might expect, advent of power tools notwithstanding).

The real meat of the book, for me, starts on page 28, with the first of projects.  The projects in the book range from the quick-and-dirty (five-board bench, hardtack crate) to somewhat more complex (officer's field desk, Lt. Kelly's camp chair).  Some of them build on earlier projects:  the field desk, for instance, is designed as dividers and modifications to a hardtack crate, since that's how some of them would have been built.

One detail I enjoyed was the sidebars:  for instance, in the section on building a hardtack crate, Mr. Hamler included a recipe for hardtack.  Do you need one?  Probably not.  Does it have anything to do with woodworking?  Nope!  But it's an interesting addition, and if you're really planning to do reenactment, having hardtack available might be useful, so why not have some?

Each of the 17 projects begins with a description of its historical provenance:  where Mr. Hamler found the description, where the photos (if any) came from, and how it would have been used.  For some things -- most notably the hardtack and ammunition crates -- he is able to quote Army regulations on construction technique and sizing.  In other cases, he has existing historical artifacts to draw from, or sometimes just photos.  One of the projects on my "Do it soon!" list is Lt. Kelly's camp chair, which he found three photos of from different angles.  While the original is almost certainly long gone, the photos gave enough information to produce a good replica.

From historical information, Mr. Hamler moves on to materials and construction.  For the most part, standard 3/4" stock is perfectly usable, but Mr. Hamler pushes the idea of using different sizes.  Why?  Well, because 3/4" wasn't really a standard, historically.  So if you're going to use it, that's fine, but it shouldn't be everywhere.  That's one of his complaints about the camp furniture that's so common with reenactors;  too much of it is made from standard sized lumber.  Once he's explained what lumber to use, he moves on to layout and technique.  This is possibly where the book is most lacking.

Mr. Hamler is mostly concerned with historical information.  That's not a bad thing, necessarily, but it means that many of the projects are a bit sparse on construction detail.  There's plenty of information to figure it out if you have a little experience -- I didn't have any trouble reading between the lines, and I'm barely an apprentice, skills-wise -- but don't expect layout diagrams and cut-lists like you'll find in a woodworking magazine.  They don't exist, for the most part.  He does discuss each component necessary, and the joints used, and usually in quite a lot of detail, but the instructions are sometimes a little disjointed.  Really, though, that's my only complaint with the book, and I certainly feel confident that I could easily come up with a plan for any of the projects in the book.  And if I can, then anyone with the skill to use the necessary tools should really be able to.

Final Thoughts:

So what else is there to say?  I highly recommend the book for anyone who wants to do reenactment.  Whether they're planning to build their own furniture or not, there's a lot of excellent information here.  If you plan to build camp furniture for Civil War reenactment, I'd say buying the book is a no-brainer.  There's good historical information, there's good construction information, and the photos give a clear sense of how things were actually used.

But what if you're not a reenactor?  Well, then it gets a little more iffy.  I'm not, and I don't expect to be.  I'm still planning to do a few of the projects:  that camp chair would go quite nicely on my front porch, and the stool would make a nice foot-rest to go with it, or just as extra seating.  While I don't need a folding camp mirror, I have friends who would probably enjoy having something like it as a simple portable mirror.  I've already got a five-board bench on my porch, made by my grandfather, and making another to match it would even out the porch quite nicely.  So sure... if you're not into reenactment, but you are a woodworker, you may well get value out of the book.  I certainly have, so I can recommend it whole-heartedly.

Book Review 2: "The New Traditional Woodworker"

So this second review will be a lot more positive than the first one.

The same disclaimer as last time applies:  I am, if no longer a beginner, then nowhere near a master.  Not even a journeyman.  I have a little experience, a lot of theoretical knowledge, and loads of opinions.  So take these reviews with a grain of salt.

First Thoughts:

The second book I got was "The New Traditional Woodworker", by Jim Tolpin.  Again, let's get the first response out of the way:  I quite liked this one.

"I didn't think I would need to write another book on woodworking" starts out Mr. Tolpin.  "I figured the ten other books I wrote on the subject pretty much covered it..." 

As you might expect, Mr. Tolpin figured out he was wrong.  All those earlier books focused on power tools, and he found he wanted to write one on hand tools.

While much of the information in the book is fairly general, Mr. Tolpin covers a lot of ground in a fairly limited amount of space.  I think his decisions about what to include and what to leave out, while not always the ones I would have made, were mostly good ones  He manages to cover enough information that someone completely new to hand-tool woodworking would probably be able to at least figure out how to get through it, and someone with power tool experience would have no trouble at all.


Let's talk for a minute about the structure of the book.  The book is roughly divided into three sections.  The first is what you might call philosophical:  the mindset involved in using hand tools, and why you might want to acquire that mindset.  The second is equipment:  descriptions of types of tools.  The third section is project-based:  tools you can make for your shop.  Now, for a bit more detail.

1) Philosophy

"My five-year-old son learned in less than ten minutes how to cut accurately to length using a backsaw and bench hook.  The dog, however, took a little longer..."  (p10)
This section was the shortest, and is the one I have the least to say about.  Mr. Tolpin talks a lot about why you might want to work with hand tools, but it all boils down to things other people have said:  it's quieter, it's cleaner, and if you're not trying to mass produce, it's usually more fun and not all that much slower.  I like it, but if you're reading the book you probably already know most of it.  He does talk a little about shop layout here, as well as types of benches, but it's mostly old news and not very technical.

2) Tools

"When you pay home and garden store prices, what you get are tools that are -- how can I put this delicately -- garden variety." (p29)
This is where the real content begins.  Mr. Tolpin discusses both general classes of tools and specifics within those classes.  The classes he uses are:

  • Layout Tools
  • Tools for Changing the Size of the Board
  • Tools for Creating Planes and Angles
  • Tools for Joinery
  • Tools for Shaping Edges
  • Tools for Smoothing the Wood
  • Tools for Making Holes
  • Tools for Assembling Parts
  • (Non-Human) Powered Tools
  • Sharpening
For each of those categories except the last two, each is broken down into smaller subsets ("Tools for Laying out Curved Lines") and specific tools ("Marking Gauges").  For each tool, there are three sections:
  • What They Do:  This section explains exactly what the tooldoes, why you want one, and gives some specific examples of use.
  • How They Do It:  This has details of how the tool is designed, and sometimes why it's designed that way, and how you make use of it.  Sometimes that's simple (marking gauges) and sometimes it's a little more involved (bench planes), but he keeps to a fairly low level of detail here.
  • Which Ones You Need:  This is basically a bare-bones list of the minimal kit you're going to want of this particular tool, with some sketchy explanation of why.
As seems to be common among hand-tool woodworkers, the two places Mr. Tolpin compromises are a bandsaw and a drill press, both of which speed up and simplify things that are hard or tedious with hand-tools (ripping or resawing long boards, cutting long curves, or drilling large numbers of accurate holes).  

As for sharpening, he covers the basics.  What is a sharp blade, why should you grind a blade, why is hollow-ground easier to sharpen, and things like that.  He uses a combination of sandpaper, waterstones, and powered grinders and sanders, depending on what he's sharpening, and gives at least enough information to get started.  I cant' really judge the accuracy of a lot of his instruction here, because I don't use any of those methods these days.  For what it's worth, nothing he said struck me as inherently wrong, just not the way I do things.

3) Projects

"Because it is your body that is providing the energy source for the tools (all 1/5th horsepower of it!), the ability to sharpen and properly set up or configure a tool becomes paramount..." (p73)
Mr. Tolpin starts this section with a lot of general information, including a chart on "Handtool-Friendly American Furniture Woods", with comments, species name, specific gravity at 12% moisture, stability, strength, and hardness.  He also includes information on selecting wood, why it warps, and how to figure out which way it warps.

He then moves on to the projects.  In order, they are:

  • Straightedge
  • Try Squares
  • Winding Sticks
  • Face Planing Stop
  • Bench Hook Pair
  • Edge Planing Stop
  • Sticking Board
  • Workbench Tote
  • Oiling Pad (probably the simplest project in the book!)
  • Diagonal Testing Stick
  • Vise for Sharpening Saws and Scrapers
  • Sawbench Pair
  • Waste Backing Block
  • Drawing Bows (for drawing curves)
  • Sticking Board for Dowels
For each project, he moves through a similar set of sub-sections to the tool section.  He starts by explaining what the thing is used for, and why it will be useful to you.  He also lists what skills he introduces with the project, and what tools it uses for the first time.  In several cases, the project uses the tools from earlier projects, and the skills generally advance from the first project to the last.

Mr. Tolpin then goes through the process of actually building the thing.  For some projects -- like the Oiling Pad -- that takes up about two paragraphs.  For some, like the bench hook pair, that's 15 pages of detailed text and photos.  His approach mostly works for me;  there are a few places I find his explanations to be too vague or too in depth, but since everyone has a different background, I can't say how it will work for you.  In general, I'd say anyone with a little experience should be able to work through all the projects in order.

The Projects section ends with a description (again, with photos) of the process of squaring and truing all six sides of a board, which is a nice addition. 

Final Thoughts:

So what else is there to say about this book?

There are a few problems with it.  The big one as far as projects go is the old paradox of woodworking:  you need a square to make a square, and the same holds true for a lot of projects here.  It's hard to figure out if your straightedge is true if you don't have a straightedge, it's hard to build a sawbench without a good place to make cuts in large pieces of lumber, and so on.  Mr. Tolpin does make some good suggestions about how to work around some of these problems, but there's only so much you can do about others.

The only other real complaint I have about the book is the editing.  There are a number of typos, misuses of apostrophes, and things like that.  Does it detract factually from the book?  No.  Will most people notice them?  Again, no.  But sloppy editing in a published book bothers me.

The book is somewhat limited by space;  there are places where the discussion of a tool or project is a little bit sketchy, but if he'd gone into full detail about everything this would have been an encyclopedia, not a reasonably priced book.

Overall, I can happily recommend this book.  It's got a lot of good information in it, and it's mostly well written and useful.