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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!

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Excellent Woodworking Videos

Ever have one of those moments where you go, "oh yeah, of course...obvious when you think about it!"

Here's an excerpt from the new video series on Richard Maguire​'s site The English Woodworker​.

This is probably the best 'ordinary fundamentals of the craft' instructional video series I have watched, no egotism, no nonsense, just proper knowledgeable instruction at a sensible pace. If your grandad had done an apprenticeship, this is very close to what he would have learned and, video technology aside, how he would have learned it.

A lot of people are squeamish about paying for video tuition, especially when there is so much free content available. But when you put an hourly rate on your time, he only needs to save you a couple or three hours maximum before it has paid for itself. If you honestly believe it would be more efficient to spend that time trawling through hours of badly shot footage for the odd snippet of insight, or perhaps struggling in the workshop trying to figure it out for yourself, be my guest.

Richard is classically trained and makes his day-to-day living building furniture with hand tools. He has a beautiful working rhythm and is on hand to answer your questions.

Forget 'tricks of the trade', this IS the trade.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

The best screwdriver in the world...

1 part Chase English Potato Vodka
4 parts freshly squeezed and sieved orange juice
1 handful of frozen grapes

To make the worlds best vodka screwdriver you have to start with the worlds best vodka. Chase single estate English potato vodka is made from organic Lady Claire and Lady Rosetta potatoes, distilled five times, chill filtered and hand bottled. Its smooth, complex, creamy flavours are unlike any vodka you have ever tasted before, and it's gluten free. I get mine here

Buy fresh oranges, roll them on the counter to release the juice, squeeze them, then pass the fresh juice through a sieve to remove the pips, pods and pith.

Serve in a highball glass with frozen grapes instead of ice, they will chill your drink just as effectively but won't dilute it in the process, so the last sip will be just as perfect as the first.

If you were looking for the worlds best screwdrivers, try here:

Workshop Heaven Screwdrivers

Workshop Heaven Screwdrivers

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Workshop Heaven Blue Moon Sale

Once in a Blue Moon Sale
Starts 31st July 2015

There hasn't been a blue moon (a second full moon in a month) since August 2012, but if you miss this one don't worry, there's another one coming up in two and a half years time. 

It's nice to have a little fun every once in a blue moon, so we are sharing a blindfold discount code with everyone who reads our newsletters and blog posts, or keeps in touch via facebook, twitter or instagram.

There are discounts applied to almost every single item on, but you'll only find out how much your total saving is when you enter the discount code at the checkout.

Please note:

The code will only work during the full moon, from Friday 31st July at 5pm until Sunday 2nd August at 8pm.

Discount code: BLUEMOON

Fill your boots,

P.S. Full credit to Ioana Davies for the stunning photograph.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Alan Peters Award for Rycotewood Student Avian Evans-White

I was lucky enough to see Avian Evans-White's Award winning ‘Revolve’ bedside tables in maple with a cherry inlay at the Rycotewood National School of Furniture end of year show last month.

Avian is taking the foundation degree (Arts) in furniture design and making and has just picked up an Alan Peters Award at the Celebration of Craftsmanship and Design to go with the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers award pictured below.

The design is original, well conceived, and very well thought through. Three legs will always be stable, even if the floor is uneven, and the choice of subtly figured timber invites you to appreciate the quality and skill of the making.

Well done Avian and well done Rycotewood.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Tom Fidgen's Sawyer's Bench Course at Warwickshire College

This week I'm at Warwickshire College building a sawyers bench with hand tool woodworking expert Tom Fidgen of the Unplugged Woodshop and An Unplugged Life.

The training course, organised by New English Workshop, is one of several going on this summer with some of the most famous woodworking instructors in the world, including Roy Underhill, Christopher Schwarz, Peter Follansbee and Yannick Chastang.

We started with boards of rough sawn cherry, fairly unpromising to look at in this condition, but trust me, there's some seriously gorgeous fruitwood hiding under that rough exterior. The first job was setting out a cutting list and Tom took us through the process of adapting the design to suit both the timber and our own personal preferences for the project. One of the things I love most about hand tool woodworking is that it is working with the wood, rather than trying to impose your will upon it, as we tend to when emboldened by the power of electric tools. It was nice to get Tom's take on this and learn some of the clever techniques that he uses to save time and effort.

The stock was then dressed and roughly dimensioned by hand. For the cleaning up I've been using a Mujingfang jack plane, the tough HSS blade makes it a great choice for preparatory work like this. I've done at least 20 square feet so far and only needed to hone the blade once.

The blade has been honed with a relatively slight camber and then I've whacked on a load of lateral adjustment so that a corner of the blade bites really deep. This slices up the waste nice and quickly and with relatively little effort, kinda like a scrub plane but less aggressive. With a couple of quick taps you can easily switch sides or square the blade up to take a few levelling strokes and see how you're doing. It doesn't take long to figure out that keeping it as ugly as possible for as long as possible is the fastest way to get down to a nice level surface.

Once the Muji had exposed clean wood and sliced off the worst of the bumps, I switched to a Clifton No.6 to true up the surfaces.We are not aiming for set numerical dimensions here, it is a sawbench after all. If you can get away with producing evenly matched, four squared blanks, it's a lot easier to adapt the joinery than do unnecessary extra planing to thickness.

I tend to face and edge the convex side of a small batch of boards, then go back and true up all the concave faces. It would probably be better practice to finish each component completely before moving on to the next, but I find this breaks up the work a bit and helps me to stay very aware of time and progress through the day. If you are all done facing and edging before you're halfway through your time, there may be a chance to fit something else in before end of play. If you're past halfway, you get as much warning as possible that you need to ease your workrate up a notch. In either case, it is important to at least open up both sides of the board by the end of the day so that they lose moisture evenly and remain flat and straight overnight.

 The little low spot next to my thumb in the photo above is a perfect example of a job for the smoothing plane. The rest of the board is flat and is the same thickness as the matching board. Because this is part of a non-show, non-working surface that won't form part of a joint, I'll be able to sort out out that rough spot with a short soled smoothing plane. The smoother will follow the slight concavity rather than bridging it as the fore plane does, which saves having to plane the rest of both boards down to the same level. I've left it rough for now so that I remember not to square off that part when jointing the edge.

So there we have it, end of day two with almost all of the stock dressed and settling, hopefully tomorrow we can get into orientating the timber and laying out some joinery. Tom showed us a neat little technique for minimising blowout on the exit side of a saw cut, so I'm looking forward to practicing that again.

It's such a luxury to spend a whole week at the bench, especially in such esteemed company and in the beautifully equipped and lovingly maintained workshops of Warwickshire College. This is a first rate facility, kitted out in the 1960's with a lathe room, a fully equipped industrial machine shop and an eighteen bench hand tool workshop. Right, must get to bed - early start in the morning!

#unpluggedwoodshop #newenglishworkshop #workshopheaven #tomfidgen #warwickshirecollege

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

A little Peace (& Spafford) of Sheffield toolmaking history

I recently acquired this lovely Victorian 14" sash saw, which was made at the Eagle Works, Green Lane, Sheffield by Peaces, Spafford & Co.

The saw is in remarkably good condition, a little damage to the top horn, a little pitting on the sawplate, but overall it has survived 150+ years very well. It looks like it has spent most of it's working life in the service of a left handed craftsman, evidenced by a lovely depression in the left cheek of the handle where his fingertip has rested. Unlike many tools, it has not been stamped with any owner's marks, and close inspection of the parts not polished smooth by a left handed grip also reveals the faintest traces of rasp marks left by the man who made it.

This mark is of particular interest to collectors because it is very accurately dateable to a particularly good period of sawmaking. Peaces, Spafford and Co first appears in the Trade Directory in 1854 and again in 1856. Further research suggests that Abraham Spafford left to form his own company in 1858, so I'm pinning the manufacturing date down to between 1854 and 1858.

The Peace family started out as filemakers in the early 1800's, they started making steel in 1816, and by 1836 had set up Eagle Works - the factory where this saw was made some 20 years later. The new factory had 50 staff on the books, twin cementation furnaces and an impressive 'double 12 hole' crucible steel furnace that could brew up about 360 kilos of crucible cast steel at a time; they weren't playing at it. 

The site of the Eagle Works is currently being redeveloped for housing and was excavated by archaeologists before building work commenced. In the archive assessment by Lauren McIntyre, archaeologist Roderick McKenzie notes that the cementation furnaces were some of the best pre-1850 examples yet excavated and may have been among the first 50 such furnaces to be built in the city of Sheffield.

In the early 1860's the firm outgrew this factory and moved across the river to the Harvest Lane / Mowbray Street area (where our Thomas Flinn Pax and Dorchester saws are still made today), by that time they were employing some 150 people. They took the name 'Eagle Works' with them and the green lane factory was taken over by Ibbotson Brothers and renamed Globe Works.

The 1850's were a fascinating period of history, 1851 saw the great exhibition at Crystal Palace in London, in 1854 Britain declared war on Russia over the strategically important Crimean Peninsula, and in 1857 two men called Nathaniel Creswick and William Prest invented a new game called football and set up the world's first ever football club - Sheffield F.C. - I wonder what they would make of a world cup final today!

Back at the day job, saw manufacturers were working hard to compete with London's reputation for producing the best saws, there was nothing gentlemanly about their tactics. Factory seconds had poorly finished London pattern handles put on them and the blades were stamped with fictitious 'London' makers marks in order to damage the reputation of London manufacturing. They were fairly subtle about it, the 'London' saws were perfectly usable, just not quite as nice as the ones that had Sheffield stamped on them.  This practice still causes confusion among collectors seeking rare but very high quality London made saws. If you want to check before you buy, Simon Barley has kindly published a list of the known fictitious brands on the TATHS website here.

The decade was also marked by the growing power of the trades unions, who sought to control Sheffield manufacturing in the same way as the Company of Cutlers did, but by rather more violent means. There were rattenings (stealing the tools of a man's trade), beatings, shootings, bombings and murders. You might think that all this would have been directed against the factory bosses, but usually it was the workers themselves that the unions sought to control. One example is Thomas Fearnehough, a saw grinder who had quit the union and gone to work for a manufacturer whose workers the union had withdrawn, for which crimes he was murdered. In 1857 his home was blown up with gunpowder (with him in it) on the orders of William Broadhead, secretary of the saw grinders union. Broadhead's trial nine years later made the papers as far away as Australia and California.

Parliament deftly and effectively hobbled union power in the 1870's by forcing the Company of Cutlers to accept workers as well as factory bosses. Company membership soared, and as it did union power declined, owners responded rapidly by adopting mechanisation wherever they could, siezing the opportunity while it was there.

So this saw would have been among the last to be fully handmade, by well paid and highly qualified craftsmen under the protection of a strong union. It was made by a successful firm to compete with the very best in the world at the height of British imperial and industrial power, a perfect storm of factors that positively influence quality, which is why it is such a desirable saw.

I'm going to resist the urge to joint and file the teeth of this old girl, there is a good chance that the plate will have become embrittled and the teeth will pop off if I try to set them.
Instead, to fulfil my need for a main user (and my heroin like addiction to saws) I have ordered an almost identical spec, new, fully handmade, English sash saw from Skelton Saws. The quality of Shane's saws is even better than the Peaces Spafford would have been when new, and his production methods are almost identical to those that would have been used in the 1850's. All of which leaves me wondering where these two saws will end up 150 years from now?

skelton saws


Friday, 5 June 2015

And the winner is...

Congratulations to Oscar from Oxford whose pair of beautifully made bedside tables have been selected as the winning entry in the competition we have been running with Marc Fish. Typically you would expect a designer to make discrete use of colour or figure , surface texture, and shape, usually choosing one or two and downplaying the others to create visual appeal. Oscar has muted all of them and created his visual impact by using the vacant space between strips on the drawer front to create a sense of movement.

Here's what Oscar had to say about it:

"The tables were inspired by the optical art of Bridget Reilly and Victor Vasarely. I found the visual awareness of how lines can be used to make us aware of our eyes stimulating and a visual challenge to transfer in to 3D without making the pieces overall feature a surface pattern.
I wanted to make the connection between the appearance of movement used in optical art and my tables, so using the main feature of my piece to suggest a handle made sense. The lower part of the laminate is set forward to create a drawer pull.

Underneath the curved laminate is a domed piece of copper to highlight the shape." 

Winning this competition is a significant achievement for this talented young maker. Having been selected one of Britan's most highly decorated creative artists from a field that included some serious amatuer and professional competitors, Oscar will now go on to spend a week under Marc's tuition, honing and refining his skills.

The two runner up prizes of a £100 Workshop Heaven gift certificate go to:

 Jan, also from Oxford for his velo chair, inspired by modern bicycle design and designed to wrap around the user and make them feel part of the chair.

and Philipp from Austria for his octagon cabinet. Geometric elements of the octagon are cleverly used throughout the entire piece, including the internal layout and the joinery.

My sincere thanks to all of the people who entered the competition. Both Marc and I were stunned at the overall quality of entries, many of which exhibited exceptional craftsmanship.