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Monday, 26 September 2016

In search of an extraordinary man, J Munro, Cabinetmaker & Minister

I recently acquired a beautifully proportioned Scottish pattern infill smoothing plane at a David Stanley auction. I wasn't intending to buy it, but when the lot came up my hand seemed to develop a life of its own, at one stage I even tried to bid against myself - much to the amusement of the auctioneer and my fellow bidders. This one chose me - not the other way around.

The body is gunmetal with a steel sole sweated on, overstuffed with mahogany, and stamped on both infills with the name J Munro. Planes of this type would originally have been sold as a body and the infills completed by the craftsman. The pleasing proportions and elegant curves of the infills on this one are perfect to my eye, full and well balanced it just looks 'right'.

The stamps on the rear infill are unusual, tight against the sides of the tote such that they would have been very difficult to strike squarely after the tote (handle) was fitted. This and the fact that there are no other names on it, suggest that this is the mark of the man who originally stuffed the plane.

Out of interest I googled 'J Munro cabinetmaker' and scrolling past the references for J Munro-Bell (who wrote the book on Thomas Sheraton) came across a John Munro junior in the records of cases decided by the Scottish Supreme Court 7th July 1837. The date is about right for this type of plane, so we may be on the right track, but how the blue blazes did a simple dispute over an indenture of apprenticeship end up getting all the way to the supreme court?

19th century Scottish legalese is far from easy reading, but from what I can ascertain, our man was apprenticed to John Clark of Inverness. Munro left before his apprenticeship was complete and set up on his own and both he and his father were duly sued by Clark for 'horning' or reneiging on the terms of his indenture. The Munro's countered that Mr Clark had "deserted his work without leaving any one to teach his apprentices their trade, as he was bound to do" furthermore they asserted that that Clark "repeatedly assaulted and ill used" Munro Jnr and that he did not provide his apprentices with proper board.

Clark pursued the Munro's all the way to the supreme court, whose four judges unanimously upheld the decision of the Lord Ordinary in favour of the Munro's, that they had caution (pronounced Kayshun, meaning protection) in the terms of the original indenture of apprenticeship.
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I also found a later reference to a Scottish cabinetmaker named John Munro in a history of Clan MacIvor, who having trained as a cabinetmaker in Scotland, emigrated to New York and continued his trade there. On a visit back to Scotland he found God and was encouraged by friends to join the ministry, he struggled with the decision but...

"He went back to New York intending to work at his trade; but, as he told it himself, he never unpacked his tools, but returned to Scotland, entered college and began preparing for the ministry."

After a spell in Edinburgh where he met his wife to be, a homeopath, Munro emigrated to Nova Scotia in 1848, was instrumental in the construction of no less than four churches, Rev John Munro and his wife lie alongside each other beside one of the churches that he founded and ministered in for 28 years before his death in 1877.

Whether these two tales are of the same man, and whether it is the same man who made such a beautiful job of stuffing this infill plane I will probably never know. But the thought that it might have been made and owned by a gentle and principled man who wasn't afraid to stand up for his beliefs makes it that bit more special to me.

If anyone has any further information about John Munro I would be very glad to receive it.
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Sunday, 28 August 2016

Bank Holiday Bonanza - Free Block Planes!

Spend over £200 on Quangsheng tools this bank holiday weekend, enter the code AUGBH at the checkout and we will add a FREE Quangsheng low angle block plane worth £79.50 to your order.

Offer available 27th-29th August 2016.

For full details please click here to see an online copy of our email newsletter about the promotion.

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Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Special Discount on Circular Saws

25% off
Sheffield made circular saw blades.

Each of these beautiful quality, re-sharpenable, industrial circular saw blades is individually heat treated, hand smithed and tensioned by time served professional sawsmiths in Sheffield. This process ensures that the internal structure of the saw body is correctly established so that the saw 'wants' to run true.  

The installation and grinding of the meaty tungsten carbide tips is carried out by state of the art computer controlled robots to 1/100mm precision. 

The result is a saw blade of unrivaled quality that delivers the smoothest, cleanest, most sublimely accurate cut that your machine is capable of.
Individually hardened and tempered saw bodies.
Hand smithed and tensioned for perfect balance. 
Precision computer ground tungsten carbide tips.
Custom bore sizing / bushing at no extra charge.
FREE UK mainland delivery for orders over £100  
Enter the Workshop Heaven discount code:


at the checkout to redeem your discount.

Offer ends 19th August 2016.

Friday, 1 July 2016

The Humble Gimlet

Gimlet is a lovely word, it comes from the French 'guinbelet' and refers to a small, very simple type of hand drill that was ubiquitous up until the invention of the lip and spur

The French got the word from the Dutch 'Wimmel' meaning auger, which despite the best civilising efforts of 'le bourgoise' also survived intact in colloquial French and was brought over by the invading Normans to become 'Wimble' - a common generic term in old English for any type of drill.

It is appropriate then, that our new 7 piece sets of crisp, sharp classically formed gimlets are made by a small company in France. I had used old ones before and they still did a reasonable job, but the difference when you try one that is new and sharp is nothing short of remarkable.

The gimlet has survived, virtually unaltered for a thousand years, thanks to its usefulness for preparing fixing holes at the ends of boards. Having planed your boards true, the last thing you want to do is split them near the ends when you drive a nail or screw. In good air dried timber a gimlet will cut a beautifully formed hole anything up to one and a half times its own diameter from the end of a board. The conical shape of the hole allows screws to engage fully, or if you prefer you can clamp on a sacrificial backing board and carry on drilling for a clean, parallel sided, through hole.

I don't expect these to catch on with the power tool crowd, but if your heart is set on working unplugged they are something of a necessity. 

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Rice and Chips - The new Fugaku range of saws from Gyokucho

In the 1940's Japanese knifemakers combined the virtues of European and Japanese knives to produce the santoku - a design classic that has now become ubiquitous in kitchens throughout the world.

Gyokucho, the company that invented and perfected the replaceable blade Japanese saw in the 1970's, are fishing for a little bit of that same east-meets-west magic with their new range of Fugaku folding saws, and I believe they have hit upon something rather special.

Lacquered quartersawn beech has been the preferred handle material for English backsaws for centuries. The way that the material is cut from the log maximises its dimensional stability and, when the light catches it just right, also displays the flower of the timber beautifully in the faces of the finished piece. This harmonious combination of function and appearance is just the sort of thing that the Japanese appreciate and it sits naturally with their own experience of high quality lacquered finishes.

Another functional aspect of western backsaws is the clever use of weight, a carefully proportioned spine engages the teeth perfectly for maximum cutting efficiency and the sawyer can use their discretion as to how much of the saws weight they either support or allow the wood to bear. It's a bit like driving a car with cruise control stuck at 55 and controlling everything with the brakes. Master this and you can start smoothly and stop at a line.

Rather than adding weight simply for its own sake, Gyokucho have used it to over-engineer a beautifully smooth folding mechanism and a folded spine made from a thicker steel pressing than that used on their traditional Japanese saws. This extra weight gives the saws a more pronounced sense of feeding the power on or holding it back, as well as the technique common to both cultures of using sharper strokes to cut faster, or softer ones to cut with more control.

The blade geometry and toothing are all Japanese; for saws that are used horizontally the logical arguments for a pull stroke and a thin blade working in tension are unassailable. They have however, chosen blade designs from the existing Gyokucho range that are functionally closest to the western trinity of dovetail saw, carcase saw and panel saw.

At the moment woodworkers are polarised by lack of choice into a preference for either western or Japanese saws. Whether there is also a group who prefer saws that respectfully draw upon both traditions, only time will tell.

Fugaku saws and replacement blades are available now from:

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Marc Fish Dovetails

The other day I shared a post from Marc Fish advertising his upcoming weekend dovetailing course at Robinson House Studio in West Sussex. Another good friend, Rob Stoakley, left a comment questioning whether it would be possible to teach a joint like the one shown in the photo on a weekend course?

I should point out that this joint isn't the actual content of the course, that starts with a basic right angle through DT, progresses to half blind followed by a look at the more complex stuff. Having said that, it was my contention that this joint could be taught in a weekend. Once you have grasped the basic principles of hand cut dovetails, it isn't a massive leap to introducing a few cheeky curves and non-90 angles. Before you know it you can be confidently exploring a whole world of creative possibilities that are only accessible with hand tools and the same core techniques.

As you might expect the gauntlet was duly laid down and picked up, so here's a brief summary of the method I used to make a mock up of the dovetail joint from Marc's award winning desk L'Orchidée.

I used lime and mahogany, both relatively soft timbers, dressed square and true and then cut the end of the lime at an angle to replicate the pointed corner on the original.

My dovetail saw was a bit shallow in the blade for the longest edges, so I had to 'make do' with a 14" sash saw from Bad Axe. It is a testament to the smoothness of this tool that by using a very light touch it was still able to cope with the perilously thin mahogany, leaving just a whisper to clean up with a sharp thin bladed chisel.

Tails done, I transferred the layout to the front piece with a marking knife and carefully pared out the bulk of the waste to create a corresponding negative space. Fishtail skews are an absolute godsend for the job of tidying up the corners.

With the joint itself cut, it was on to carving and shaping the front. By defining edges first and then sneaking up on them from the middle it is possible to get complex curves pretty close by eye and then tidy up with sanding or scraping.

A drop of glue, a tap with a mallet to bring it together, and the joint is done.

Not as crisp and tight as Marc's joinery by a long chalk, but as a practice piece it was fun to make and demonstrates that with basic hand tool skills, common sense and a little bit of practice, you can take on more complex and creative joinery.

workshopheaven badeaxe dovetail woodworking ashleyiles cliftonplanes knewconcepts

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Redesigning the No.043 Plough Plane

Every once in a while life throws up a wonderful opportunity that's just too good to miss. So when Quangsheng told me they had one available development slot left for 2014/15 and invited me to design a product to fill it, I absolutely leapt at the chance.

I chose as my starting point, the humble but much loved Record 043 plough plane (US = plow plane), a British designed tool introduced in 1934 and last made in 1978. During that time it sold in vast numbers and was copied by several other manufacturers in England and even as far away as Russia, but not as yet by anyone who sought to improve upon it.

The 43 has one very useful role that most woodworkers discover a need for when they start making drawers, picture frames, windowsills or simple boxes with sliding lids. It cuts grooves, the narrow housings that accept a panel, like a drawer bottom, or a box lid, or the slot for the glass in a picture frame. Thanks to the relieved fence it can also cut rebates on the edge of a board for carcasses and bookcases. The depth is governed by a depth stop (often missing on secondhand examples) and the distance from the edge is set by adjusting the fence. 

To knack to cutting a good groove is to start with a short cut at the end of the board and go a little further back with each pass. The plane takes a fairly heavy shaving so you reach depth quickly, quietly and without the clouds of fine dust that you get with a router.

Despite the massive numbers of these tools that were produced and sold, good quality complete examples are getting thin on the ground. Buying two or three and then cannibalising them for parts is all well and good, but as secondhand prices and postage costs rise that too becomes an expensive game. So the question now was, if we are going to produce a new one, how can we make this wonderful tool even better?

The first thing to go was the uncomfortable stippled casting web at the back, the 'knuckle grater'. In the iron casting it is there for strength, but by using stainless steel instead, we could give the new 43 a larger open loop handle that is both stronger and more comfortable to hold. The design engineer at QS came up with the wonderfully neat solution of using the rear fence rod hole to brace the corner whilst also rotating the clamping screw out of the way.

The original plane came with three imperial blades as standard with additional sizes and metric blades available separately. Since metric is now the order of the day for sheet goods (even in America - shhh don't tell em!) the new version has eight blades, four metric and four imperial. In practical terms that gives you four options for a tight fit and four options for a sliding fit to allow for movement. If you need the occasional wider housing or rebate, you can always reset the fence and make a second series of passes. The cutters are all precision ground from 3mm thick T10 carbon steel with relieved sides to eliminate binding. They are hardened to RC63.

Rather than expecting the user to make their own fence, we decided it would be better to include a factory made rosewood one and give the user the option to take it off if they want to. The original 043 had screw holes for attaching a wooden fence and for those that ever got around to making one, this addition improved the stability of the tool no end.

The last alteration was to extend the usefulness of the tool by adding a clamp to the skate that can be used to attach a saw blade. This extends the usefulness of the tool by enabling it to cut very narrow grooves, create a guide kerf for resawing boards to width, or accurately cut stringing from the corner of a planed blank with a minimum of waste. 

Much of the inspiration for this feature came from Tom Fidgen of The Unplugged Woodshop. Tom is a great advocate of kerfing planes and his design for a shopmade kerfing plane is one of the most popular plans in his first book. Here's a short video of Tom trying out the prototype Quangsheng 043 with the saw attachment. He had just about bottomed out the cut by the time I got my phone fired up, but you get the idea.


Since then we have made some further refinements to the design of the sawplate and are now having the saws manufactured in the UK, they will be available shortly as an optional extra.

Needless to say, I am absolutely delighted with the result. The lightness and compact, manageable feel of the original is retained, but with greater comfort, better materials and lashings of extra versatility. Groovy!

If you're in North America you will need to pester your local Woodcraft to stock them. For the rest of the world the Quangsheng Luban No.043 is available here:

Workshop Heaven Fine Tools

Monday, 12 October 2015

Clifton Planes and Pax Saws Video - Made in Sheffield, England.

In this beautifully produced new video you can see for yourself how Clifton Handplanes and Pax Saws are made, one at a time, with care and skill, in Sheffield.

Proper hand engineering, machines with knobs and handwheels rather than usb ports, operated by clever men in blue coats with micrometers and feeler gauges sticking out of their pockets.

The really good news is that by focusing on quality rather than price, the toolmaking industry in Sheffield is growing back! 

Craftspeople are increasingly returning to the idea of saws that last a lifetime and planes that can handle knots.  It's also great to see British youngsters coming into toolmaking and learning the craft of making them as well as possible, not as cheaply as possible.


Friday, 2 October 2015

Guédelon - Welcome to the thirteenth century.

When you first arrive at Guédelon, you don't see the castle straight away, but even the most mildly attuned will certainly feel it, the sheer creative energy of the place reverberates through the surrounding woodland like a drum!

As you walk towards the site, you gradually become aware of the rapid 'tick, tick, tick' of masons chisels on stone, then the slower 'ting.. ting.. ting' from the blacksmiths shop. The creak of handmade hemp ropes taking the strain is gradually joined by the smell of oak and the damp earth beneath your feet.  You are literally walking out of our sanitised, air conditioned, plastic world and into 13th century reality.

Guédelon is a 25 year scientific and experimental archaeology project. It's not archaeology in the sense of digging up artifacts and analysing them, instead this audacious project seeks to recreate a complete quarter decade of the past intact, and with it challenges faced by craftspeople from 1242 to 1267.

By applying the solutions that we know they had available at the time, historians are able to find the gaps in our knowledge, deliver reasonable suggestions for how the remaining problems might have been overcome, and then test them within the context of the time. This is especially interesting for me, because the only production methods available at the time were hand crafts.

The thing that struck me most deeply during the visit was the level of interdependence between the many crafts. Imagine a musician, who had only ever heard snippets of individual instruments played solo, suddenly walking into the Royal Albert Hall with the London Philharmonic in full flow and you begin to get an idea.

The woodsmen would select, fell and square timber for the carpenters, cartwrights and millwrights using axes and dogs forged by the blacksmith, using charcoal supplied by the woodsmen.  The millwrights would use the wood to build a mill to grind the farmers' wheat for the baker to make into bread using a hearth lined with tiles made by the tiler and a table made by the carpenters so that everyone could eat.

We all know that occupational surnames like Smith, Tyler, Carpenter, Wright and Baker are rooted in the crafts, but when you stand in the middle of a complete working community you realise how and why they became surnames. These were not just jobs, everybody made something and what they made completely defined their existence, as well as their place within the community and wider society - for generation after generation.

In my day job at Workshop Heaven I often meet people who harbour an inexplicable but long held yearning to make things with their hands. I Now understand why that feeling exists. We have spent thousands of years evolving into a species of makers, it is a fundamental part of our genetic makeup that transcends borders, language and cultures. It is, in essence, what we are.

The crafts themselves have changed very little and were already long established by the 1240's. Chatting with the Blacksmith he explained that the fundamental skills of the craft (drawing down, jumping up, punching, cutting and fire welding) equipped him for everything that had been tasked with at Guedelon, it was just a question of working out how to apply them to the job at hand and taking as long as it takes. The biggest hardship for the smiths was the lack of flat material to work with. The bloomery iron that would have been available at the time comes as a lump, so if you want sheet, you need to first beat it flat by hand before you can begin.

The Castle builders' main tools were the plumb line, the level (plumb line on a frame) and the thirteen knot rope, a deceptively simple tool that can be used to form a variety of surprisingly accurate geometric shapes.

Examples of all of these have been unearthed at the pyramids, built some three and a half thousand years earlier, (when you have just stepped back in time by 750 years, another 3500 seems like a very long way indeed). Ironically, at exactly the time Guédelon would have been under construction, the pious French King Louis IX was extending the crusades into Egypt - there's gratitude for you!

If you would like to visit Guedelon for yourself, it is a couple of hours south of Paris in the Treigny area . Details can be found at The site is open every day except Wednesday until the 3rd of November 2015 and re-open's next March. Tours are conducted in French, English, Dutch and German.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

First impressions of the Clifton block plane

We received our first delivery of Clifton block planes yesterday, so I thought I'd share some photos and initial impressions.

As you can see it's a very handsome looking thing indeed, with very clean and elegant flowing lines.


The next thing you notice is the mass, at nearly 1kg (just over 2lb) this plane has quite a presence. That said, I'm used to using a narrower 60-1/2 and this is nearer to the proportions of a 9-1/2, so that may be why it's so noticeable to me. It feels wonderfully planted on a big endgrain surface, and if you have larger hands prepare to be enraptured!


The body is vacuum cast bronze, a process where the mould is evacuated of air and the liquid metal is literally sucked in. It's a comparatively expensive way of going about it, but every last detail is captured perfectly with no voids, so they gain a bit back by having nothing to reject when the castings are ring tested.

The bodies are individually machined one at a time (mention gang milling at Clifton and the room goes silent) and carefully hand finished. This is an important point, a Clifton is very much a handcrafted object, you will find minor asymmetries, hand tooling marks and no two are exactly identical, they are made, by one craftsman for another, rather than produced.


The blade is beautifully thick and I noticed on the wholesale price list that they are listed as '25 degrees', read into that what you will...! I absolutely love the way they have incorporated the adjuster at the back and the fact that they have included the bumps in the sides of the bed to align the blade and provide a fulcrum for the adjustment - this is exactly the way Thomas Norris intended this adjustment system to be used.


Some people will squeak and hurrumph about the price being nearly the same as a No.4 smoother, viewed another way you might draw the conclusion that the bench planes are 'still remarkably cheap at the moment'. In either case, I'm glad that Clifton are sticking to their guns, concentrating on making handmade tools beautifully, and letting everyone else respond to them.

Great job Clifton, this one really hits the mark!