Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Hand Tool Workshop

Yesterday I enjoyed the visit of a respected English antiques author and his wife. As we walked around the place, I began to reflect on how many different visitors have knocked on my door and asked if they could see my workshop. At different times, over the years, I have hosted organized tours for groups like the San Diego Fine Woodworker's Association or the American Society of Appraisers, or different museum docent groups. But the normal visitor is just curious about how a pre industrial wood shop looks and functions.

I don't really spend much time thinking about it, since I live here the majority of the time.

One of the first questions I am asked is "Where did you get all these tools?" And, as most of the published photos of my shop include the wall of tools, I thought I would answer that question.

When I started working on antiques, I decided not to purchase power tools, for several reasons. First, they were expensive, and I was broke. Second, I had never taken a wood shop in my life, so I knew nothing about using woodworking tools. Most importantly, I believed that power tools were dangerous, and I knew about woodworkers who had lost fingers, or their hearing, or developed respiratory problems from breathing dust. Another problem was that my work space at that time was very small, with only room for a bench. In fact, when I started in my garage, the floor was dirt, so it was not practical to even use wheels.

I started by reading books and purchasing small hand tools as needed. A hand saw, jack plane, some chisels, you know, just what I needed to do the job at that moment. As I learned more and more about traditional woodworking "at the bench," I began to travel East and stay with other woodworkers, like Michael Dunbar, who taught me the tricks of the trade.

During the summer of '78, I lived for three months in the parking lot at Winterthur Museum, in Delaware. I walked from my camper at 8am to the library, and returned to my quiet place in the corner of the lot at 10pm after spending all day studying in the library. It was there I discovered Charles Montgomery's research data which listed inventories of the workshops of cabinetmakers who died before 1840. Each inventory provided a list of the wood, hardware and tools which were in the shop at the end of that craftsman's career.

I compiled a comprehensive list of specific tools which were on the different inventories, and, armed with this "shopping" list, began to aggressively seek out these same tools. Fortunately, this was before the internet was developed and before regional tool collecting groups were formed, so I had little competition.

There was a dealer in Maine, I recall, who had a large barn which was completely full of tools. Each table had piles of wood planes, and each table had a set price. One table had $5 tools, another $10, and several tables had really nice tools for $25 each. So I took my shopping list and some cash and began to put together a collection of tools that would be representative of any pre industrial wood shop.

As time went on, there appeared a couple of tool dealers who offered regular sale catalogues. These catalogues were sent out a few times a year, and the dealers made every effort to post them so they would arrive at the same time in all parts of the country. When the mail arrived, I would immediately search through it and call to place my order. I had to select more tools than I wanted, as many of the tools were already sold by the time I got through. It became very competitive, as more people got involved in the search for these artifacts.

On two occasions, by way of these catalogues, I was able to purchase a collection of 75 English Shieffield carving chisels at very good prices. By luck, when I laid out the two collections together, I found that there was very little duplication of shapes. Today, I have over 250 chisels, most made by Addis, a famous chisel maker.

In fact, I now have 850 hand planes, on shelves around the shop. I haven't bought a tool for many, many years now, and I really don't need to look any more. I have a few French planes, several English and the majority of them are American, made before 1850. All are functional, as I was careful to purchase "user" tools and not "collector" tools.

The planes are on both walls of my primary work space, near to the bench. That makes them handy and ready to select when I have the need. I am not sure, but I just might have the best equipped hand tool workshop in the West. It only took 40 years.


john constantine said...

Hand/Workshop tools
It’s going to be ending of mine day, but before ending I am reading this great piece of writing to increase my knowledge.

Unknown said...

I wonder, do you perhaps still have that original list framed somewhere?

W. Patrick Edwards said...

I never throw anything away. I have a shopping "book" with profiles and inventory of my collection which I used to carry with me on trips. When I found a tool I liked, I would compare it with the list in the book to see if it was a duplicate or not.

Since I no longer shop aggressively for tools, I do not carry the book around. It just sits on the shelf.

In fact, there is no room left on the walls of the shop to frame anything.