Thursday, February 22, 2007

A Good Craftsman Blames His Tools

Of course the adage states that it is a poor craftsman that blames his tools. The more that I work with handtools and teach the more that I think this is false. So many of the problems and also of the improvements that I find are due to a better tuning of the tools that I am using. As I ask more of them, finer surfaces and faster results, they seem to require more attention. Using a tool that isn't sharp is like driving a perfect car that happens to have flat tires. All of the other components being correct don't help if where the rubber meets pavement is flat. Often with students, I'll introduce them to a tool that isn't perfectly tuned to acquaint them with it and then we tune it together. The difference between the before and after says it all.
Some tools, such as the oft dreaded skew chisel, don't do the intended job at all unless tuned properly. The key to the skew is that the angle at which the two sides of the bevel meet cannot have any rounding at all. It must be flat, or hollow ground right up to the edge. Now I know that a slightly rounded edge (not to be confused with a curve along the edge) will cut, but it won't cut as cleanly and is much more difficult to control. This tiny difference counts dramatically in the performance of the tool, especially if your goal is to eliminate sanding. So my adage is that a good craftsman blames his tool, and then goes and tunes it.


Lee County Native (Alabama) said...

Pete, thanks for this excellent blog. Your chairs and shop are inspirational, and you clearly have a knack for writing as well. You've mentioned the all-important subject of sharpening in a couple of your posts; will you then talk about your method tomorrow?

Thanks again; and, so you know, I saw your blog link on

Peter Galbert said...

Thanks for the comments. I will definitely be talking about sharpening and tool tuning in a more specific way. I would appreciate more input about what topics interest folks visiting the site.

Greg said...

Sharpening is a great topic. Also tools. You mentioned you like a shallower travisher in a past blog, for example. Blog us what you want in a travisher. Draw knife preferences? You have a really nifty rig for holding seat blanks while you are saddling. You might also talk about riving. I see you have a brake for riving much like Dave Sawyer's. Lots of people don't know that they can have some influence in the direction of the split when riving. (I've got more- If you ever run out of subjects just ask! :) )

Joshua King said...

Just getting into hand tools and want to pose a question as to what chisels you need in a chairmakers set? Beginning to form some of my own opinions with regards to different styles, but there are so many types its mind boggling.
I like the concept of socket style chisels for the purpose of being able to replace my own handles in the future, but my adage right now would be properly stated as, "A good craftsman can only blame his tools once he has some to blame."
I would like to replace this adage with yours in the near future...

Peter Galbert said...

I'm glad that you've asked about the travisher. I am currently working with toolmaker Elia Bizzari on getting my design out there. I am not in business with Elia, just trying to help him make a good travisher. Most travishers have such an extreme sweep that the ability to define the seat shapes with it can be tough. Think about the way that the flatness of a handplane transfers to the workpiece. It's the same idea. Upon examining any chair, you'll notice that the curves are actually not that extreme. I'll be announcing when Elia starts offering them.
For drawknives, I definitely prefer straight blades and handles that allow the tool to be used bevel up. I do have ones that have handles parallel to the blade for bevel down use. Both come in handy.
I'll post a photo of the holding rig soon and yes I use a brake, but it's buried in the snow!

Good news, chairmakers don't need a lot of chisels. I use one chisel a lot, it's a 1 1/2" wide and comes in real handy. I would also consider a 1/2" mortise chisel. As far as brands go, I can't really say, except that you often get what you pay for. Any chisel can be sharpened, the question is how long will it stay sharp. I am a big fan of garage sale tools, especially as you're just starting. They are cheap and good to learn on. It's a lot less scary to grind a $2 chisel. Check out your local junk shops and spend the money on a good set of waterstones.

Greg said...

I believe that the only exception to getting a good set of chisels for chair making at garage sales is that I believe a #3 sweep 35mm gouge is almost essential. And if you find one at a garage sale, you're lucky. It's not a chisel, OK! But it is really handy for trimming the top of the leg/top of seat joing flush to the seat surface. This was one of the items I bought after going to class at the Windsor Institute. They're available at Woodcraft (Swiss Made). Highland Hardware sells Hirsch gouges. The Austrian Stubai is another maker- can't tell you who sells them. Or you could try the Chris Pye #2 1/2 gouge made by Ashley Iles (

Anonymous said...

Has anyone tried the Sorby 'spindle master' instead of the skew? I tried one and liked it so much I bought it. None of the problems of the skew, yet it cuts like one with much better control. I then reground an old round nose scraper to a similar profile and like that even better. Now the skew only gets used a little, perhaps for long straight planing cuts, but no longer for beads and roundovers where it most often catch and ruin a turning.


Peter Galbert said...

Great input. I am a big fan of trying new grinds and better ways to get results. I think that the grind that you are talking about has some great applications, but I use the heel and toe of the skew a great deal in my turning. I've found that a slight radius along the cutting edge to be a great help, allowing an even lighter cut. On your advice, I am going to play some more with the grind you describe.