Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Think Artisinal for the Holidays

The holiday shopping season seems to start earlier every year.  As soon as the Halloween candy goes away at 6pm on October 31st, employees are hauling out the Christmas lights and tree stands.  Shopping advertisements get out of control and show no signs of stopping.  I want nothing to do with any of this, and yet I also have a pragmatic "if you can't beat them, join them" mentality.

A "Joiner's Gift List" post is upcoming, and I have vowed to myself not to post it until after Thanksgiving.  However, I want to get this out there as my counter to the lamentable "Black Friday" shopping phenomenon.

Independent artisans are still out there, and this is especially true in the woodworking world.  Some of the very finest tools are not made by large companies with zillion dollar budget, but by people in garages and basements with more pure passion, skill, and experience than any mass-market tool corporation can dream of.

I've been very pleased by a number of tools made by these independent makers and want to share a few of them in case any of you readers know a woodworker in need of something special.

Artisinal toolmakers are keeping old flames of knowledge alive, and when applicable, adding modern technology, materials, and twists.  They provide customer service not possible for a large company.  In many cases, if you have a unique need, they are happy to fulfil it.  This is also a gift that gives more than once; you are not only giving a beautiful, comfortable, and effective tool, but you are allowing the toolmaker to continue their existence doing what they love.  There is an added somewhat subversive joy in withholding your gift-giving funds from large companies who use much of your money for parasitical services, fees, marketing, expense accounts, international travel, executive perks, retirement plans, and all the other drains which have nothing to do with the products at hand.

If you are reading this blog, you probably already understand the value of domestic [note that in the case of heirloom tools, importing from an artisan is wholly worth considering] , old-fashioned tools designed to outlive the user.  If not, please consider this and if you need a mental jumpstart on the topic, do yourself a favor and read Chris Schwarz's The Anarchist's Tool Chest.

Without further ado, these are some of the items which have worked very well for me so far:

1. Wenzloff and Sons Saws

I'm not going to suggest specific saws, since this depends on the user and the type of work.  I have a rip panel saw and a tenon saw from Mike and I love them both.  Mike (and his sons) essentially rebuild replicas of the finest saws ever made, but using modern tools and techniques to bring them into the 21st century.  Its a real pleasure to talk to Mike on the phone about your needs, and have all of his experience at your disposal in suggesting a tool.  They are not cheap, and yet, given the quality and the lifespan, they are not expensive either.  Here's my rip saw, based on a design by Harvey Peace:

2. Phil Koontz Holdfasts
Pictured above as well as below, these are real works of art.  I use a pair of them in conjunction with the excellent Gramercy holdfasts, but I always take a little more pleasure in using these.  I cannot say they are a workshop necessity, since the more affordable Gramercy holdfasts work very very well, but their elegance is frankly a real mood-lifter in the shop.  The sharp tips of the leaf shape lend such a precise and nimble gripping force that it I honestly look forward to excuses to use it.  To me this is the sign of a superb tool. Again, the joy of supporting an artisinal blacksmith like Phil is worth it, but that goes double when the tool is of such high quality.  My honest suggestion for a typical handtool worker wanting to do it right would be to get 2 pairs from Gramercy and 1 pair from Phil.

3. Blue Spruce Toolworks

I don't have many tools from David Jeske, but I am already in love with the 2 that I do use. Made in his home shop near Portland, Oregon, these are wonderful to look at, hold, and use.  I have his marking knife: an ultra-glorified X-acto type knife for making reference marks and severing wood fibers with the bonus benefit that tools such as a chisel can register right into the cut. I also have a mallet from him, made of beautiful maple impregnated with resin so that it is strong, light and incredibly well-balanced.  I have not used his chisels or other tools but I believe it is safe to assume that they are equally well thought out.  The marking knife is in the center here, and the mallet is near the top.

4. Glen Drake Tite-Mark gauge

Shown at left in the photo above, this is a very pleasant to use cutting gauge. Any woodworker would love to have one of these, and if they already have one, having more is always better.  If you are not a woodworker and can't understand why you would want more than one marking gauge: these are very, very precise instruments.  It can take a few moments to really dial it into the correct position (dial is literal in this case, with the knurled fine-adjustment section).  Once you do, you don't want to do it again.  A given project might have 5 or 6 crucial measurements, and it makes a lot of sense to set the gauge once, and leave it for the whole project.  Its very, very, very nice to have multiple gauges, marked with masking tape, for each tenon, board width, groove, etc in the project.  3 or 5 of these admittedly pricy tools should make any woodworker squirm with the glee that only comes when total satisfaction is reached.

5. Ron Hock plane irons

Perhaps the finest aftermarket plane irons available for your vintage tools.  Not only are the blades nice and thick, but his chipbreakers make a huge difference in the stability of your tool.  A very affordable upgrade for your garage sale find.  Ron is fast to communicate, and is able to meet special needs.  Highly recommended.

6. Various services

I have had a very positive experience using Bob Rozaieski's saw sharpening  service.  Fast, affordable, and very effective.  I know there are many other sharpeners out there, and I will probably try them until I have my own abilities locked down, but in the meantime Bob is the one I can say I have used and enjoyed.

Joshua Clark's Hyperkitten Tool Shop is amazing.  I almost hesitate to mention it because I do not want competition from other customers, but the kitten is out of the bag, as they say, so do yourself a favor and tell Josh what you are seeking and you'll quickly see for yourself that he can find it and you will be impressed with his discerning service.

Even if you don't know a woodworker in need of gifts, I hope that this post serves to inspire you to consider doing business with individual artisans and small firms whenever possible.  Without getting too philosophical, I believe these types of businesses are the future just as much as they are our past. Top-heavy corporations with homogenous products will never be able to comfortably suit a craftsperson's needs.  Just as its almost impossible for me to find shoes which truly fit due to my mutant wide feet, I am much happier with the wares from these small makers than I am with my mass-produced tools.  Its reassuring to know that your money is going right to the makers, with very little middlemen, ridiculous trucking and warehousing, or salaries of people who have no role in the actual toolmaking inflating the prices.

I personally encourage you to turn Black Friday into Buy Nothing Day, but come Saturday, why not look up some of these small tool makers and see what they can do for you and those you love?


  1. I'll certainly second the recommendation of all those tool makers, and also mention that most of them regularly attend the Lie Nielsen tool event at the Northwest Woodworking Studio each February (Feb 10-11 2012). While it takes a certain amount of fiscal discipline to attend these events, it's a great chance to meet the toolmakers in person.

  2. Eric-

    Thanks for the tip! I will certainly aim to be there.

  3. (Man, you're a prolific writer...)

    I love my Blue Spruce tools. Dave has been kind enough to let me ship him wood so that I can have a nice semi-custom set of curly mahogany handles on my marking knife and burnisher and a set of dovetail pairing chisels (a Christmas gift from my wife last year).

    I do have a second marking knife in rosewood that was another gift from my wife about five or six years ago. But I don't mind having two - I'm constantly misplacing one of them, so it is nice to have the backup.

    If you ever end up with one/some of the paring chisels, ease the edges on them, because they'll cut ya! They'll cut ya bad!

    (Ok, maybe not BAD. It's more like seven tiny little paper cuts. But paper cuts can hurt, especially if you section a bunch of grapefruit later that day. You'll rue the day you bought so many ruby reds...)

  4. Thanks for the tips, kilted. I would definitely like to obtain one or a few of his paring chisels at some point.

    Because of my primary "job" taking care of a toddler, I often have odd little slices of time when I can rattle out a blog entry, even if I would rather be in the shop. I would like to write more, actually, and more carefully. I am not proud of the writing I do here, often rife with errors or cumbersome phrasing, but its a question of getting out there vs not posting at all. I prefer to get it out there, since this is a chronicle of my woodworking exercises and not a fine writing journal. Ideally it would be both, but so it goes.