Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Joiner's Toolbox: The Hand Plane

If this sometimes feels like a woodworking blog, I apologize. It's not intended that way; it's just that so much of the technology of the 16th century revolved around items made from wood or iron. Often both. 

Despite the fact that modern woodworking has largely become a matter of "He/She who dies with the most tools wins" it hasn't always been that way. In no small part, this is owed to the fact that there wasn't as much unnecessary variety in tools. The tool box if the 16th century joiner was relatively simple. Even today, there's not much you can't make if you have a couple of measuring implements, a sharp knife, a few decent chisels, a saw or two, a hand drill, a nice heavy mallet, a hammer, and a few simple hand planes. (Your apprentice will also need an axe, a mallet, and a froe for splitting lumber as well since you can't go down to ye olde Home Depot to buy it.)

Some details can be found in period sources:
"A Rule a compass a hatchet a hansawe a fore plane a joynter a smothen plane two moulden planes a groven plane a paren chysell a mortisse chesell a wymble a Rabbet plane and six graven Tooles and a Strykinge plane..."  
- From a 1594 apprenticeship contract of John Sparke and Humfrey Bryne, outlining the tools of the joiner's trade. (As quoted in "Seventeenth Century tool kit." Peter Follansbee, joiner's notes (blog). September 8, 2009.) 
If you're engaged in a specific trade, of course, there would be a couple of additional items such as lathe tools or spoke shaves, but there's really not really much variance from that central list.

A small selection from my toolbox...
The primary tool in the joiner's toolbox is the hand plane. Roy Underhill has even said that the difference between a carpenter and a joiner is the joiner's plane. He's right in a very specific way: guild laws actually forbade the use of certain key tools by other craftsmen in order to discourage generalists. For the joiner, the hand plane -- especially the plough plane -- was his identity as much as the lathe identified the turner.

The hand plane is essentially a chisel held in a frame and secured in place with a wedge. Sometimes, there's a handle at the front or back, depending on where and how it's used. They've been around since pre-Roman times and arose independently in cultures cut off from one another as the obvious next step to save labor from smoothing large surfaces with hand chisels and adzes.

The parts of a hand plane (I realized I haven't done a custom illustration in awhile)
The amount of change between the Roman hand plane linked to above to the hand planes that were found in the wreck of Mary Rose (below) and the ones in my wood shop today is very slight. The drawing above could cover any one of them. Most of the changes were matters of metallurgy as the blades got better and better and the chip-breaker was introduced to help alleviate the clogging problems endemic to the old beasts.

It wasn't really until the industrial revolution that any great change in plane technology was introduced and took root. In 1865, Leonard Bailey's patent hand plane changed the plane from the wooden carcass we see in the archaeological record (and my tool chest) to the iron-bodied planes that we see today.

If you've been following along, you've seen this tool before in a far more decrepit shape. It's my recently refurbished Bailey Number 6 with my custom over-sized walnut tote (I have large hands). This is the most common form of hand plane seen in workshops today. My friends might mock me as a Luddite, but even in my focus on hand tools, I'm a mostly modern worker of wood. Iron body planes have it all over the wooden ones in durability and adjustability. They're easier to use, easier to set up, and less finicky by far than their old wooden counterparts. Want to adjust the iron on a wood plane? Grab a mallet. Whack the tail to retract the blade, the front to extend it, the sides to adjust the pitch, and hit the wedge to set the blade... then do it all over again if you get too much or too little. Yet wooden planes are still made today and used religiously by many.


I wondered that myself until I bought a couple of them from my local antique dealer and put them back into service. First off, they're fun. I can't find a better way to describe it. Also, the weight of the thing does some of the work for you. I've noticed as well that once you've worked out the zen of setting the iron,  they don't chatter as much.

Another thing worth noting is that proper joinery of the period was all done with green wood. None of this kiln-dried nonsense that we get today: Cut down the tree, split it up, and make some furniture! If you try working green wood with iron-bodied planes you're going to have rust problems in pretty short order.

Incidentally, they can also be quite beautiful.

My favorite planes aren't as pretty as the one Robin Wood made (pictured in the link above) but they are elegant in their simplicity.

The fact that these tools changed so little from their inception to now is a blessing of a different sort: We can set up our (mostly) period-correct toolbox without making them. The differences, in fact, are so slight that in his book "Make A Joint Stool from a Tree: An Introduction to Seventeenth-Century Joinery," Peter Follansbee advises buying them and getting on with it. This is because -- other than the addition of a chip-breaker and handle placement -- the wood-body planes I can buy today in any antique store are virtually identical to the tools depicted in paintings, engravings, and other depictions of early modern joiners, as well as the first English-language treatise dealing with the joiner's art: Joseph Moxon's Mechanick Exercises (available via that link as a free download), published in 1694.

We'll be referring to Moxon again, so get used to hearing his name...

~ Scott

Image from Moxon found via Project Gutenberg's scan of Woodworking Tools 1600-1900

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Waiting for the other shoe to drop...

Some things I learned today:
  1. Wooden shoes are really quite difficult to walk in, 
  2. The Dutch call them 'Klompen' from which we apparently derive the onomatopoeiac word my dad used to describe how I walked across a room. (ClompClompClompClomp...)
  3. Splinters. Ouch!
  4. I have no idea how anyone dances in these silly things. 
  5. "Onomatopoetic" is a real word but sadly doesn't refer to extremely noisy poetry, which is just terrible and wrong in my opinion.

While we're making lasts and getting our joinery act together, let's chat a bit about workplace safety. My new shoes will be many things, but steel toed is not one of them. For safety's sake, let us consider other options in the foot-protection department. Clogs. Or you might call them klompen, sabot, or those whimsical tripod albarcas of Spain. Whatever you call them, wooden shoes are everywhere. (And not just in Europe, but the world. Japan, China, and Korea all have wooden shoe traditions.) All across the the planet, people have spent a large part of the last few millenia using wood to protect their feet.

The fens of Europe were much worse in the early modern period before landowners spent a few centuries draining the wetlands and building dikes and whatnot. So mostly, the wearers of all these clogs were trying to stay out of the mud. However, it's worth noting that I am not exagerrating, apparently the European Union has granted 'safety shoe' status to the traditional clogs.

I wouldn't want to drop an anvil on my foot even if I am wearing a nice wooden clog, but then I wouldn't want to drop an anvil on my foot when I'm wearing steel toed boots either, so... yeah.

Anyway, clogs like the ones I'm wearing above (made, incidentally, in Holland, Michigan) are most often identified with the dutch, but wherever there was mud and offal in the offing, there was wood on someone's feet.

Remarkably, even if these were strictly Dutch shoes (file the point toes off and they'd be right at home anywhere in Europe), it wouldn't matter to us. Why? Well, remember when we were brewing beer? The influx of immigrants and refugees to England made London a bustling and cosmopolitan city. The peoples of the Low Countries (modern day Belgium and the Netherlands) fled religious persecution and Spanish rule in their homeland and brought with them their beer and their pottery and set up shop wherever they could find a bit of space. So even if they hadn't found people wearing clogs and pattens, they'd have introduced them when they got there.

The Worshipful Company of Pattenmakers won't be incorporated until the mid 17th century, so they technically fall outside my project. Which is why we are not going to make a pair. (That and I still haven't found one of those pesky stock knives I was talking about...) Nevertheless, they were around and they were indeed making pattens and overshoes to navigate the muddy streets of 16th century London.

Pattens we will make once we have shoes to strap them to. It gets pretty muddy here in Washington so if I hope to wear these shoes and have them last for more than a season, I'll need to get myself up out of the mud.  To do this, I will strap some wood and leather overshoes to my shoes using the traditional (and blessedly easy-to-come-by) wood of the alder tree.

Honestly, I'd like to see more clogs and pattens worn at reenactment events anyway. Maybe we can start a trend!

Dutch (again) pattens found in an archeological site.
Creative Commons licensed via Wikimedia Commons
We'll talk more specifics about the making and design of pattens when I'm making them. In the mean time, let's take a closer look at my wooden shoes, just for fun...

The Dutch-style clogs on my feet are visibly almost identical to the shoes worn in the muddy byways of the Low Countries since the 14th century. Mine, however, were carved from poplar by an ingenious combination of lathes and very clever industrial tools that have been around virtually unchanged since the 1920's.  You can see them in action here if you are curious.

Our pattenmakers and cloggers of the 16th century had no such access to mechanized luxury. They turned them out on at a time from an alder log using a stock knife and a spoon-bit drill almost exactly as you'll see in this video.

Neat stuff!

More later, as always...

~ Scott

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Last Last Post

For the record: I'm won't spend quite this many posts for the second last. However, on advice from Francis, I did go back out to the workbench and spent some more time zeroing in on the correct form of my last. He advised that I raise the sole about a 1/4 inch, sloping from the ball of the foot to the heel. This isn't to accommodate a heel so much as to accommodate the shape of the human foot.

This was done mostly with hand tools this time: the pattern maker's rasp and as I neared my final desired measurements, a spokeshave. I will sand it to remove most of the toolmakrs before putting a finish on it and moving on to the next one.

In the meantime, we're going to shift over and visit the Joiner's shop.  Stay tuned!

~ Scott

A bit of heel lift demonstrated by putting the heel on a handy speed square.

The less-flattened sole of the shoe.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

...and Lasts, and Lasts, and Lasts

So apparently when Francis Class told me that the problem with modern/vintage lasts is that they're not 'flat' he meant 'didn't have a heel' rather than 'as a board'. (So to speak.)

You see, it didn't quite sink in that, unlike maskmaking, when you take the last out of the shoe, you don't cut it out. So there needs to be a bit of wiggle room in the form of a toe and heel rise to allow you to slip the last out of the shoe without stretching and distorting it in the effort.

That makes perfect sense.

Thankfully, in the conversation I had with Francis last night, it turned out I'm not the first aspiring shoemaker to grab a piece of scrap pine and try to turn it into a last. He shared this link to the shoemaking blog Where Are the Elves? Adventures in Historical Shoemaking. This guy turned up an historical last to copy. It's a 'straight last' and I'm making a 'crooked last' but more on that another time.

Also, the sole is generally a bit smaller than the shadow of the shoe. So my last needed to look even less like a shoe and even more like a foot.

I can do that.

Tonight after work I grabbed my patternmaker's rasp (Hand tools FTW!) and spent some time with my last in a vise, re-shaping the sole and putting more of a narrow waist on the new last.

I might have to shape it a bit more but I didn't want to overdo it. It's easier to take off too little than to put too much back. . . or something like that.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Worshipful Company of Cordwainers Part I: Something that lasts...

Don't call them 'Cobblers'. A cordwainer is a shoemaker, a cobbler was actually forbidden by statute from working with new leather. His purview was restricted to repairing a cordwainer's work after it failed. The Worshipful Company of Cordwainers controlled all aspects of the manufacture of new shoes.

Whence came the name? For that, we go straight to the horse's mouth, as usual...
"Those who worked with the finest leather were called Cordwainers because their material came from Cordoba in Spain. They developed a soft, durable goatskin leather known as Cordwain – the very finest leather available – importation of which contributed to the growing prosperity of London. Over a period of time, those who processed the leather formed their own guilds. The shoemakers, however, retained the name of 'Cordwainer'." - From their site:

Yesterday I said I knew nothing about shoemaking going in. This is true, though I've done an extensive amount of leatherworking so "nothing" might be a bit of a stretch. My favorite form of leatherworking, in fact, is making leather Commedia Del Arte masks like the one you see below. 

Much like shoe making, masks are made with the leather worked wet and formed over a carved wooden matrix. (If you are interested in maskmaking, click here for a full tutorial I wrote last year). So the first step in making either mask or shoes isn't leather, it is carving wood.

And carving wood is something I understand completely.

First things first, I had a chat via email with Francis Classe, historical cordwainer extraordinaire and all around nice guy. He's been very helpful and supportive all along, providing not only advice, but photos and links to things he'd written as well as books of historical shoe making. Francis works with modern wooden lasts that he modifies for a period shape.

I like woodworking and I have some carving tools that haven't been taken for a spin in far too long, so we're going to make our own. (This is not to be confused with the fact that I have a size twelve foot and couldn't easily find a modern last to modify. Nope! Not at all.)

Seriously though, I shake my fist as these hobbit feet on a regular basis.

Seriously, I had to get out the big sketchbook to even trace around them. I know people with larger feet than mine and I tell you now I don't want to make shoes for any of them.

The lastmakers weren't a proper guild in their own right, so I'll be going through this pretty fast and hopefully we'll get it in one. Essentially I'll be using a lifetime of carving experience to sculpt something approximating my foot. Then I'll do it again with the other foot.
Deviation(s) from Period Techniques: Near as I can tell, the standard practice for last makers in the period is much the same as now. Hardwoods (preferably beech) are cut to a rough shape using something called a 'stock knife' which aren't easily obtained in the United States. A stock knife is a large blade with a handle on one end and a hook on the other. I'll append a video at the bottom of this post of an experienced clogmaker using one.
The hook is secured to an eyebolt in the table as a fulcrum to form a 2nd class lever. I couldn't find one and don't have the werewithal to make one, also I'll be using scraps of pine since this doesn't have to survive the ages, just the one project. If I like doing this and want to do it again, I'll make another out of a hardwood. In the meantime: pine.
Because my feet are deep and wide, I glued up a some chunks of 2 x 6 I had lying around and transferred my traced outline of my foot to the wood, trying to avoid knots and grain funkiness. Or at least use the grain funkiness to my advantage.

Step two of any carving project is to remove as much waste material as possible. The fastest and cleanest way to do this would be to cut it away with a band saw, but I don't own one. So the second best chance is to cut to the line and chop away the waste with a combination of chisels and coping saws.

It's hard to do this and take pictures at the same time and The Engineer was grouting the kitchen tiles, so forgive me if these look a bit staged. It's only because my hands aren't in the shot.

Having pared away as much of the waste as possible, only resorting to the chopsaw for the bit that crosses the knot at the little toe.  Chisels tend to glance off of knots or chunk them out completely to the detriment of carving as a whole.  A real last maker would choose a clear piece of hardwood, as I said, but we're working with what we have.

Now, more cuts to make the waste as small as possible before removing it with a smaller chisel...

Working in all three dimensions means more cuts and switching through a series of chisels and working top and bottom.  According to Francis, unlike modern lasts, period lasts tended to be flat-bottomed since heels hadn't really become a Thing yet.

At this point, it's time to switch to a gouge because it's easier to create and follow curves with a gouge than it is with a bench chisel...

Most of the waste is removed, time to get to the final shaping.

This is where I encountered a very modern conundrum. Because lastmaking is ancillary to the actual project and just this one had already eaten the heart out of a day, I was faced with another few hours of paring away at the last with a succession of knives and rasps, or I could use a machine.

My conscience got the better of me. In the end, I rasped away most of it until I's achieved something close the final shape and was starting to lose the light. Then I took it into the garage and chucked a drum sander into the drill press and finished the final shaping and sanding in one.

So... speed may kill, but it does save you from wasting more time than you have to.

Next: Do you know your left from your right? Did the Elizabethans?

~ Scott


"Footwear of the Middle Ages" by Marc Carlson (Website) How historical shoes were made from the middle ages through the Tudors, working from primary sources and personal experience. Great site, lots of information.

"Handmade Shoes for Men" by Laszlo Vass and Magda Molnar (Book) Modern shoe making and some inaccurate history, but valuable information on measuring feet and fitting shoes.

"Stepping Through Time: Archeological Footwear from Prehistoric Times Until 1800" by Olaf Goubitz (Book) Just what it says on the tin. Francis swears by this book. I haven't acquired a copy yet, but I'm working on it.

"Chopine, Zoccolo, and Other Raised and High Heel Construction" by Francis Classe (Website) I hesitate to risk the pun, but Francis is a class act and a generous scholar of historical footwear and how it was made. Visit his site and his blog to see this done right, thoroughly, and well.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Shoemakers and Tailors: Because naked people have little or no influence on society...

Mark Twain said "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society."  Which brings us to the next parcel of research in our quest.

Before this project even began, I was already thinking about what I would wear and how I would make it and whether for the sake of authenticity I needed to wear a costume while I was about my monthly tasks. One year ago today, I was writing the words: "Going into this, I honestly did not give much thought to clothes. I am mostly known as a costumer, of course I was going to be doing most if not all of this garbed in the period manner. As much as possible and a bit more, please."

At the time, I fully intended to be dressed like the fellow in the engraving at right. This renaissance tradesman has always struck me as the iconic figure of the man of the period, standing ready to make a living by the calluses of his hands. I bought fabric and sat down to make the costume I would wear for each and every aspect of this year's project. I would put it on whenever I was going to be doing anything for this project.

If you've been following along, you'll already know that this turned out not to be true.

Seriously, though, Espresso Monkey tees are totally correct for the period. 
In the end, I decided that unless the clothing either changed the outcome in some manner, or unless the venue called for it, I was going to focus on the nuances of the trade and focus on creating and using the correct tools, wearing the correct and current safety equipment, and not get slowed down each night when I got home by changing into doublet and hose.

Don't forget that I am, as I often point out, not a reenactor. I'm not here to step into the life of a 16th century tradesman, I am here to study the lives of all 16th century tradesmen. Which isn't to say that I didn't make the costume...

Of course all period artisans spent their time leaning against trees with their tools scattered at their feet...
As previously noted, I didn't really try to become a tradesman in any real sense until my recent stint as the baker in the living history encampment of the local renaissance faire. If you've stuck around that long and were paying attention to those photos from the faire, I was wearing the costume created to match the bloke in the engraving.

Before I started this project about half the people who knew my work knew me primarily as a costumer. (The other half of my world thought of me only as an author; this is the first time I've made any effort to combine the two disparate halves of my life.)  Because I've been a costumer for going on twenty years, the Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors (Tailors) seems a bit of a dawdle. Much as could be said for the Joiners and Carpenters.

This blog is not the place for dawdling.

Because costuming is something I'm already known for, "learning to sew" would ring just as false as pretending I'm learning joinery. (Google tells me that fully half of you got here by following the link on Garb for Guys, my costuming blog which has featured a good deal of my carpentry as well.) Even were that not the case, it doesn't matter because I'm not here to lie to you regardless.

Really, in the current bundle of projects, shoemaking is the only area where I know nothing going in, so at least there should be plenty of "Scottie is an idiot" moments for your amusement.

How will this work?

The Joiners, the Merchant Taylors, and the Cordwainers will be concurrent projects.  Remember when I said I had a plan to stack projects in a logical fashion? This is how it begins.

At the moment, I'm thinking a ground-up and skin-out demonstration of costume taken from around 1570 or so; the mid-point of Elizabeth's reign is a nice place to work. I've already been making enquiries in knowledgeable places for information on Elizabethan underwear (which is not a Google search term you want to use lightly; just trust me on this one). Meanwhile, I'll make some shoe lasts and knock out a pair of shoes (he said lightly as if the idea didn't scare him) and follow that with the drafting and execution of a pattern for men's and women's clothing from period sources and made from as close to period materials as I can reasonably acquire.

There's a surprising amount of woodworking involved in all of these projects, most especially hat-blocking and last making. Meanwhile, I shall also be finishing my joiner's toolbox and making a reproduction of an item of Elizabethan furniture yet-to-be-determined. Probably some sort of chair.

Joinery, sewing, and shoemaking is all work that must be done entirely by hand and it will probably continue and finish by late November if not early December. Updates will be posted as they warrant. These projects will be concurrent with and inform many of the other projects that will be taking place between now and the end of the year.

It's the ninth month of what I'd intended to be a 12-month project, so this is how things are starting to shape up going into the home stretch.

~ Scott