I thought it might be fun to cover a little of my relevant history for you faithful readers and for my son’s future reading. What follows in Chapter 1 covers the early years of my antiquarian ways and gives some credit where it’s due. A lot happened during this era, especially hand woodworking, which in Chapter 1 was a short eight year period from 1992-2000. And so, without further adieu, we begin:
In the late 1980’s, I developed my first creative interests in metal working, blacksmithing, and chain mail armor. I craved knowledge, and in the very early 1990’s, while still in high school, my life took an additional direction away from metalwork into woodwork. At the time, This Old House, The New Yankee Workshop, and The Woodwright’s Shop were very popular on TV, and I watched many of those shows, along with many silent movies and black & white “talkies”, with my maternal Grandparents. In 1992, I began the journey of hand tool woodworking thanks to my Grandfather. I can’t remember exactly why, but one day we took a trip to Scottsboro, Alabama, for the monthly Antique Fair and Flea Market on the town square. My Grandfather bought my first woodworking plane for me on that trip and it spurred an interest in woodworking, and later, antiques and other creative endeavors.
A Family Mentor & Benefactor
At the time, my Grandfather was self employed as a cartoonist following his retirement from the art department at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution (AJC). I’m not sure exactly why he guided me to woodworking because, while he had an interest in antiques, this extended to old cars.
I was told he was one of the founding members of the Georgia division of the Model A Restorers Club (MARC) although I haven’t been able to find any documentation to that effect. Regardless, his group was active and held many meets. In fact, a number of their meets were covered by the AJC. The picture below right was taken by a MARC member and used for an AJC article.
Antique Woodworking Tools
Antique woodworking tools are not exactly native to the southeastern United States (“The South” to those of us who live in the US). I made numerous trips to antique shops and followed many leads but had little success. While at one of the Tullie Smith Blacksmith Guild meetings, I met Floyd Daniel.
Floyd (above right) was one of the early members of the Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America (ABANA) and had amassed a vast collection of blacksmithing and woodworking tools. I was at the right place at the right time because he was beginning to sell off his collection. I made many trips to his home in Madison, Georgia, to talk about and buy tools. With Floyd’s help, I started to build a small collection of antique tools to restore and use. The handled plow plane shown below was one of many tools purchased from Floyd’s collection.
I was quite the documentarian, and the handled plow was one of almost 300 tools that I have files on, many of which were from Floyd’s collection. While I maintained very good records on my purchases, I wish I had done a better job of documenting the tool collections of the older collectors like Floyd, but the pictures I do have tell interesting stories. For instance, the post drill shown below is the same one mentioned in a previous post. The red arrow shows this very drill as found in one of Floyd’s many sheds around his property.
Mike Dunbar and Tool Restoration
About 1992-1993, I picked up a copy of Restoring, Tuning, and Using Classic Woodworking Handtools by Mike Dunbar. My 1989 hardcover edition became my handbook for my woodworking hobby. Since this was before the internet and email we know today, I hand wrote and mailed a letter to Mike care of his publisher. Not only did he respond, he said he was going to be in town to teach a Windsor chair class at Highland Hardware and for me to come by. Mike is kindred spirit and an expert in his field. He has written numerous books and magazine articles and, at the time, was a traveling instructor.
For several years, I visited Mike during his annual visit to Atlanta to teach Windsor chairmaking. Most of the students in his classes were new to hand tool woodworking, and I helped out by sharpening and adjusting many of the student’s tools so they could focus on chairmaking. Mike later opened the Windsor Institute to teach chairmaking full time, so we stayed in touch by the newfangled email that was just becoming common at that time.
In 1993, I joined The Society of Workers in Early Arts and Trades (SWEAT). Fred Bair of Auburndale, Florida, ran SWEAT at that time and he was a singular force to be reckoned with. As an interesting connection in this tale, Fred started SWEAT at the suggestion of Roy Underhill (remember The Woodwright’s Shop above?). When I joined, there was no Georgia chapter leadership, so I volunteered to manage the Georgia Chapter and publish a monthly newsletter, The SWEAT Shop News. This association put me into contact with many active living history members and old hands in the historic arts. These were good years.
I visited Fred in 1993, and purchased a number of tools including a complete set of hollows and rounds (molding planes). I remember that he had a particular affinity for Griffiths Norwich planes and had quite a collection to show for it. He was the only person I knew who had antique pit saws in his collection.
My First Workshop
I needed a place to make shavings and restore tools, so in 1994, my friends and family helped me to build my first workshop in my parent’s backyard. I was book smart on construction but had never built any structures before. It was a true experience of firsts: first time leveling a foundation, framing, flooring, siding, roofing, and hanging doors and windows. Parts of the structure were scavenged a 10′ x 12′ gambrel roof storage shed in my grandfather’s back yard. We disassembled the storage shed and moved it piece by piece to my parent’s house. The rafters, gable end siding, right end wall, and some of the flooring of the finished shop comprised the bulk of the scavenged material from the shed. The window was scavenged from yet another storage shed on my grandfather’s property.
The completed workshop was 12′ x 14′ with a 10′ x 12′ storage loft. It had power and lights but no heat or air conditioning. During the summer months, the workshop would easily get much hotter than the outside temperature despite being shaded by trees, so I added a small window unit air conditioner to stave off the Georgia heat. Looking back on this construction project, it amazes me that we did all of this work only for me to move away roughly six years later. However, I had more energy back then and really accomplished some antiquarian miracles during that short time.
In June 1995, the Photographic Society of America (PSA) held their annual conference in Williamsburg, VA, and I was invited by my paternal grandfather (who I mentioned in a previous post) to join him at the conference. The town of Colonial Williamsburg is a truly amazing living history museum and an inspiration to those wanting to recapture the arts of the past. Coincidentally, there was a major tool exhibit going on during the PSA conference and many of the historically significant tools I had read about were on display. The poor lighting and dirty glass on the vitrines made photography challenging.
My SWEAT connections paid off and we met a number of people who made guest appearances on The Woodwright’s Shop. We also got the behind the scenes tour of the reproduction tool making workshop and many other industrious areas that kept Williamsburg churning. I came away from this trip more inspired than ever.
Putting Everything Together
Being inspired and having a space to work, my woodworking endeavors took off. I built the things I needed to accelerate my restorations. Below are a few samples:
This led me to new projects and experimenting with new techniques. For instance, the antique thread cabinet below left has been passed down through my family and now belongs to my wife. It’s made of mahogany and pine with box jointed drawers. While functional for its intended purpose, the overall proportions seemed a little off. I built a reproduction in cherry to test proportional design, sliding dovetails, using screws instead of dovetails on small drawers, and directly gluing on drawer bottoms.
This project also taught me that it was best to edge glue boards using only clamps and to avoid using a dowel jig. The dowel jig allows you to drill centered holes along the mating edges of boards to aid alignment in edge gluing. However, the holes are never drilled perfectly centered which causes the boards to become misaligned during the glue up. The board surfaces then have to be flattened as a whole after the glue dries. By aligning the boards by hand starting at one end of the board and progressing to the other end, clamping as you go, there is almost no misalignment.
This paid off later when I began a larger, seven drawer cabinet project.
The picture frame spline jig is another such experiment.
This was a fun time for me as I taught myself woodworking and learned from my mistakes.
Leather Tool Guards
My interest in leatherwork goes back to my chainmail days (a young knight needs his sword belt and other accoutrements after all). Combining hobbies, I made leather guards for some of my hand woodworking tools and a snap on guard for one of my backsaws in particular. After seeing this, Mike Dunbar asked if I could make some for his edge tools that he carried on the road to his classes. I took measurements, made a set, and the rest as they say is history. Letters and emails rained down from chairmakers wanting leather guards. In 1996, I began a small business to make a selection of edge guards for the most common tools in the Windsor chair making arsenal. The picture below shows the production models from the last year I was in business.
It was thrilling to see my leather guards in the cover photos on woodworking magazines such as Fine Woodworking (issue No. 142) and in the articles as well (Fine Woodworking issue No. 132 and American Woodworker issue Nos. 67 and 71).
Heading to Chapter 2
It’s interesting that I never met any of the cast of the three TV shows that started my woodworking bug. However, I met many other wonderful and helpful people during this time and documented many collections and workshops. In addition to the whirlwind of activities in Chapter 1, I attended and graduated from college, got married, and started a new life – thus beginning Chapter 2.