By Chris Watson (aka Redhorse_Ronin)
Part 2 of the Woodworking Without Electricity Series
In the pursuit of achieving greater self-reliance, I am always gladdened that my lifelong love of woodworking can be combined. Before my writing hiatus, I wrote an article about woodworking without electricity that was greeted with positive comments and some requests for further articles of a similar theme. Since the publishing of the previous article, I have acquired several “new” old tools. Most need restoration to some degree but I believe that there is lot of life left in them.
Now, many may wonder at the need or even desire to use these old tools when power tools are so much easier, efficient, and faster, right? Perhaps, sometimes, powered tools ARE preferable; however, if there IS NO power or if, like me, you truly enjoy learning and using craftsmanship, this may be a road for you.
In the past six months, I have acquired several old chisels, brace bits, hand planes, a camp hatchet, a hewing hatchet, a hewing axe, as well as a scythe. Additionally, my significant other has gotten some old water bath canners, strainers, utensils, and an antique nutmeg grinder that I am trying to restore for her. They all need work but I am confident that they can also be returned to good service.
French Made Mouli Grinder I found in an antique tool place. I picked it up for a couple of bucks and have been restoring it with my Dremel and steel wool.
One might notice a general theme with some of those tools. They are often tools used when shaping and framing heavy timbers. One of my favorite series of books has long been Foxfire and I grew up with centuries old, storied western North Carolinian chestnut and hickory roots, with sawdust in our blood; I have been interested in the art and techniques of shaping or milling timber. In other words, what are the processes for taking a vertically rooted tree, felling it properly, transporting it, processing or shaping it into usable forms? Before there were sawmills, manual sawing, splitting, and hewing were the primary means of converting trees into usable products not meant for the fireplace.
All of those methods were, and still are labor and time intensive. With the advent of water driven saws, then steam turned, and finally modern powered saw mills, it was soon easier to get planked and uniformly sized lumber. The growing availability of this lumber led, eventually, to modern stick framing construction methods.
While I will not turn this into a treatise comparing old construction methods with current methods, I will say that there is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates that what building methods that were used for centuries throughout the western cultures and even in Japan is more efficient in terms of energy used for environmental comfort and even in the actual construction and maintenance of structures. Simply put, the older methods are proving to be greener, in many cases, than current construction methods. This is bearing out as a new trend is growing in the building industries that are combining old methods with new technology and materials to achieve higher levels of building and energy efficiency. What is old is new again.
Great points but how does this apply to us?
Consider this, the power becomes intermittent or non-existent (pick your reason du jour –EMP, CME, asteroid strike, economic chaos, etc). You and yours have survived to this point. The building materials at the big box stores are not easy to come by. You HAVE to build some structures for a variety of reasons. How do you take those trees that most are burning up for wasted heat and turn them into useful forms? Even if you have a couple of books lying around, do you have access to the TOOLS to do this? If you had these skills and the means, prior to needing them, how marketable would they prove to be? Imagine how much food, clothes, ammunition, medicine, or other skills and services you could get if you could build a structure or you could fashion needed things out of suitable timbers? This is the essence of bartering.
Or to make it more relevant, how about having the skills and means to craft things simply because you learn to LOVE the feel of a quality tool in your hands as you use it on God’s own bequest to us to do what humans do- create objects of functional beauty. You may discover a latent need to connect with our vestigial love of creating with wood in ways you cannot now fathom, nor appreciate.
Surely, I romanticize this to a degree but that is how I do feel about the process. For the more spiritual amongst us, there is, at least from my worldview, a degree of stewardship in this, as well. For those of a like mind, we are called to be stewards of the world and this is a remarkable manner of exercising stewardship…..but I digress.
Before ANY of the previously described things can be achieved, tools must be acquired. Where do we get these tools? What do we get? How do we restore them? How do we maintain them? How do we use them?
As I intend this to be a series of articles, I fully expect to answer these questions in some detail. But to answer the first question let us thinks outside of the box and we will discover follow on questions, as life always proves.
Where do we get these tools?
I haunt flea markets, garage, and yard sales. I brake for tools. I am a bit of a tool geek, like that (insert Tim Allen grunts now). While it is fun to get a great deal on a used power tool, when you live in an area like mine, it is possible to find some interesting old manual tools. Understand your area, and you will understand what to look for. I live in an old blue collar east coast industrial town with a colonial history of tradesmen living and working in trades like the maritime, steel, and war industries. As a result, many people will have tools handed down from their grandfathers that were used in pipe fitting, carpentry, mechanics, etc. While the carpentry tools are great for my interests, I have to go to the eastern shore or western Maryland or to parts of Pennsylvania or back south to find tools more long the line of timber processing tools. The area and its history and historical economy have a lot to do with availability of tools. However, this is NOT a hard and fast rule, I have found.
We have large flea markets and salvage sales in my area. Invariably, there are “antique” or junk dealers located there. These tend to be the guys in the dusty corners of poorly lit buildings with a labyrinth of warren like paths of tables and ramshackle areas of used wares. It is a cornucopia of treasures really. Most of these guys are older men with a sense of history that often are fascinating to talk to. One of my favorite gentlemen is a World War II vet and his friend the Korean War vet and we have literally talked for the better part of an hour as we discuss tools, compare war stories, and haggle over prices. Believe me, it is always time well spent.
The next place to look is in your relatives’ garages, barns, etc. I have heard of excellent finds this way. Most people have little appreciation for these tools and view them as rusty clutter. Maybe you can get them and do something with them and it becomes a win-win for all parties.
You can look online. Craigslist is a favorite resource for me. I have gotten many things from there. Sometimes they are good deals, other times they are not. It is buyer beware. But for all the bad things I have gotten from Craigslist, I have bartered rabbitry equipment, outfitted half of my wood shop, reclaimed lumber, gotten chainsaws, and there are rumors that I may or may not have gotten some thunder sticks, as well. Tools can be found there easy enough. Amazon can be a good resource, I am told. However, for the truly hard to come by, I have availed myself of Ebay.
Ebay is not something you just jump into. I would suggest two basic things before you wade into these waters for tools. First, research the tools. Read about them online, talk to old woodworkers (go to your local Woodcraft or Rockler store for some old wood butchers to talk to), look up images of them, read old books, watch some Roy Underhill or other Youtube videos. Get an idea of how tools are made. Cutting tools tend to have two types of steel if they were purposely made to be tools. The tools have a different temper for the areas that lead to the cutting edges to make the cutting edges more hardy and keen while the body tends to be softer for economy and resiliency’s sake. IF the cutting edge is ground two deeply, then you might want to pass on cutting tools. Second, have a price point that you want to spend with a cap. Auctions are competitive and it is easy to get caught up in the moment and overbid on something.
What then should you look for with these old tools?
Well there is no easy answer to that. Some things are simply deal breakers for those in the know and others are deal makers as many times the initiated, including the seller oftentimes, sees a chipped, rusted tool with a cracked handled and wants to unload it for a song and peanut. What your more practiced eye may see is a diamond in the rough. For example, my hewing axe has a cracked handle of undetermined wood species with a patina of rust and some modest chips. I have discerned no visible cracks in the casted axe head and I look forward to the challenge of carving an offset hewing handle that is customized for me. In short, I am satisfied with that Ebay deal. Conversely, at my new job at a horse farm where the owner has an eclectic collection of awesome new tools and, shall we say, questionable older tools, I found the shop had an old Black and Decker vintage grinder that he was talking about getting rid of the wheels because they were at least ¼ inch out of true and some chisels, one them a Stanley, that looked like Fred Flintstones loaned them to Michelangelo to carve David.
These are the chisels from work. Notice the remaining corrosion patina. The entire blade of each was much worse than this before I started.
I told my boss that with a $10 investment I could true us his grinding wheels in minutes and get YEARS of life out of them. I then had him get me several packs of sandpaper and some quality assorted Arkansas stones. While the handles were still in serviceable shape, the blades were chipped badly with paint and corrosion, along with minor pitting. I had some doubts about their viability but on a rainy afternoon this past week, I trued up the grinder, got a cup of water, and set out to make the chisels serviceable.
At this point, I would disclaim that my results were not as good as I would have liked. I had no angle jigs to maintain the original bevel and no respectable cabinet maker would use the end results; however, they ARE serviceable for the carpentry we do for the stables and that is a far cry from what they started out as.
I maintained the bevel to a large degree and removed maybe 75% of the corrosion, paint, and pitting. This was largely accomplished with the grinder. Beware of the temper of cutting edges! Heat kills tempered steel. Grind for second until you can feel the radiated warmth heating the steel to a point where it is not quite uncomfortable to your touch and quench it in the water before continuing. This process can take a while.
If you look at the attached photos you may notice that one of the chisels is a generic brand, while the other is a Stanley. This is where steel quality becomes apparent. While dressing up the generic chisel was akin to shaping butter, the Stanley was bit more troublesome and time consuming. This is accounted for the fact that Stanley WAS world renowned for their chisels and planes back in the day. They used high quality US made steel and they took pride in the craftsmanship of their products. The result was harder steel.
After the corrosion removal, quenching, shaping, quenching, dressing, and final quenching, the real work began. The truing of the chisels, final corrosion removal, and sharpening had to commence. The KEY to beginning this is finding a true surface. I had a cast iron Delta Unisaw table to work with so I clamped 100 grit paper to the surface and went to work. I would work on up to 220 grit as I worked every flat plane. This trued the surface, polished the steel and scored the bevel to assist with final honing. At this point, I was SHARPENING the bevel and NOT honing it. I worked in one direction whenever possible. This maintained esthetics and kept me constant as I maintained the plane angles by hand. After satisfying myself that with the distractions of work, I achieved decent results (Remember that not all tools need to reach perfection, they need to be brought back to acceptable levels for their INTENDED purposes.).
I then took the tools to the bench and commenced to hone them using a rough carbide stone, followed by a medium and then hard Arkansas stone. Again this is IMPORTANT: hone in a single direction AWAY from the cutting edge. This reduces the burrs on the leading edge. Note- there ARE sharpening/honing exceptions, like with scrapers, but that is not today’s lesson. Remember to work the back side of the chisel too. This evens the hone and further reduces the likelihood of burrs.
Finally, you are almost complete.
This is a good time to note the liquids used during the processes. I used water during the quenching. Cutting or light oil can be replaced but it is messier and I dislike using it on grinding wheels, as I believe that it attracts filings and debris to clog the wheel pores. I used honing oil with the stones. During the truing process you may elect to use mineral spirits to give you an idea of the final appearance, but I did not use it in this instance, simply because it was not available and it adds a degree of messiness to the task. Finally, when you are ready to store your chisels, you must remember preservative.
Keep in mind that you have done nothing but score the tool steel in the entire process. This is where corrosion will begin. A rust inhibitor is necessary to mitigate this. I have three favorite preservatives, in general. I am a fan of WD-40, bees wax, and mineral oil, depending upon the tools and task. WD-40 is perfect for moving parts on powered tools. Bees wax is great for tool tables, threads, and slides. For this task, I use mineral oil. I liberally wiped the steel down with the oil, let it sit for a few minutes, wiped off the excess, and repeated this 3-4 times per tool.
Now, the farm has three serviceable tools with still have considerable life in them. I did this with less than a couple of hours of interrupted work. I did this with about an initial $80 outlay from my boss. The great thing is that only the sandpaper is consumable. The rest is an investment for future maintenance. Granted, I have these things for myself. The outlay may be a little a bit pricey but, again, it is an investment.
In future articles, we will look at future tools and methods, as well as discuss sources for provisions. I look forward to sharing my passion with you.