The Fountainhead – part 2


The first post in this riveting series can be found here.

So after all the drama of the past 11 days we can get back to the usual business of documenting a slow, yet delightful woodworking journey. The jaws of my fountainhead were fixed to the arms using slow setting epoxy and an almighty Assegaai draw pin. As I mentioned in the previous post, one should be carefully not to offset the hole through the tenon by too much if working with such extremely hard wood as this. You will be able to appreciate from the pictures below, how the excessive offset I used caused an obvious deviation in entry angle on the entrance side. You will also notice the gap on the exit side. If the offset was even slightly more it would have destroyed the jaw on the exit side.


A quick test fit.


Here you can see the so called leather hinge.


Driven by my shame regarding the issue of copying some else’s design, I decided to created my own unique clamping mechanism. It all started with a laminated block of Kaapse Swarthout (Maytenus peduncularis).


Which received an Ysterhout (Olea capensis macrocarpa) footing. The tool supermodel is obviously pre-glass-door-incident. The photos should paint a fairly comprehensive picture of how I went about shaping this wing nut on steroids.



… and Bob’s (Demers) your uncle.


The final product with a Cape Brewing Company craft beer in the background. Imagine a fountain of craft beer … Sorry I got a bit distracted there.


You should be able to see the seal leather grip on the inside of the jaw in this picture.


The shape of my giant wooden wing nut was inspired by my idea of the head of a fountain.


My second commision – the prototype phase


Previous posts in this series can be found here and here.

Seeing that this table will be one of the major projects for the year and the first significant piece of furniture to emerge from my current shop, I decided to first build a prototype. I have never done this before, but can already see that it is a vital step in the right direction. Just to remind you of the background, this is a table for friends of ours the Burmeister-Nel family. I am building the table as payment for a whole stack of excellent Scott’s Pine beams.

The design of this table has evolved significantly over the past 7 months. So far the evolution took place in the realm of my personal cerebral SketchUp. The prototype is the first tangible manifestation of the mentioned neurophysiological exercise. At this stage it is primarily inspired by George Nakashima and Japanese joinery ideas. The feral nature of the African hard woods we chose for this project really lends itself to the Nakashima design ideology.

A second prominent influence in this design effort would be the ideas and techniques used by pre-industrialisation artisans as explored by George R. Walker and Jim Tolpin in their seminal work “By Hand & Eye”. I tried to use those techniques to strike the sweet spot in terms of proportion between various parts and their relation to one another. What I found was that working with simple whole number ratios makes it very easy to shrink and expand the design for the purpose of the prototype.

The starting point was the size of the top, which ended up being a 1:2 rectangle. The hight of the table that worked well was 2/3 of the width, which meant that the whole piece would fit in a 2:3:6 cuboid.


Here you can see my initial sketches to work out appropriate proportions. The side view were divided into 5 equal parts and I placed the leg structures on a 1:3:1  rhythm. The angle of the leg structures were also derived using a similar approach.


I used some of the mentioned Scott’s Pine to build the prototype as it is easy to work with.



I made the effort to plane down the top to the exact thickness relative to the size of the model.


The solid trapezoid shaped leg piece is twice as thick as the top and all the other parts are related to the thickness of the top.


The heavy beam at the bottom that connects the leg pieces will be attached to the trapezoid shaped piece with a through tenon, which will receive a wedge similar to the one pictured.


The opposite leg piece will consist of four spindles ascending at the same angle as the sides of the trapezoid piece. These are not the correct size as it was impossible to produced such small spindles, so the wire had to do. The actual spindles will be slightly thicker and have the bamboo type appearance similar to spindles used in some Windsor chairs.


Here are a couple of photos illustrating the type of design I have in mind for the spindles. I refer to the spindles in the back of the Windsor chair rather than the legs. I add these pictures in response to Stefan’s valid feedback.


I would like to invite everyone to give input on the design. Please feel free to rip into it, if I feel too aggrieved by the criticism I can simply ignore it. Hopefully though we can fine tune it to be better. At this stage I am fairly happy with it, but am quite sure it can be improved a bit.

The Tool Supermodel


I want to apologise for my absence from the woodworking blogosphere over the past week. Unfortunately we’ve had a really horrible time, but learnt in the process that we are very blessed with wonderfully supportive friends and family. If you read this blog you will most definitely know the Tool Supermodel.


The Tool Supermodel decided to run through a glass sliding door last week. Being Africa it turns out that it was not furnished with the correct type of glass. She ended up with a massive cut on her upper inner arm that sliced through two arteries and several nerves. She very nearly died as a result of blood loss, but they were able to sort out the vascular side of things here in Windhoek. That took about four hours. The next morning Aoife and her mother were flown out to Cape Town to get the nerves sorted. She then had another 5 hour operation, in CT which went well.

I joined them in CT over the weekend and we all flew back to Windhoek on Monday. Now we have to wait 3-6 months to see whether the nerves will grow back. To top it all, they broke into my practice on the night of the initial surgery and stole almost all our PCs. That meant that I was not able to work the following day and we are still in the process of getting the practice up and running again.

So that is why I have been absent for a while. I trust that it is a valid excuse.

The fountainhead – part 1


Seeing that my planer is still in ICU I am continuing to do the odd little jobs that does not get done once the major projects start in all earnest. One of those jobs that has been on the list for a few years is a shop made saw vise. Once again my e-mail advisor Mark Harrell of Bad Axe Tool Works sent me in this direction. He told me about an article in the August edition (#219) of Popular Woodworking by Jason Thigpen. Apparently Mark is using one of these himself and finds it exceptional.


I found scrap pieces of beach and something I though was Tasmanian Blackwood for the job. At this stage I think it might actually be Walnut, but I am not too sure. While living in New Zealand I restored a few riffle stocks of Walnut and this seems to be quite similar. I am a bit confused about where it came from though. Clearly it was in my father’s pile of wood that came my way, but I do not recall him ever using walnut for any project.

Unfortunately both piece of scrap were significantly twisted, but fortunately thick enough to be planed out. Both these species are so hard that it took me a whole day to get rid of the twist, and square up the four blocks all by hand.


Marking out the tenons.


Sawing the tenons.


Sawing the shoulders.


I usually stay about 1 mm away from the knife line with the saw and remove the rest by horizontal pairing ala Charlesworth.


That bit of waste next to the knife line also serves to protect the actual shoulders while I plane the cheeks of the tenons to it’s (almost) exact thickness. I use my Stanley no. 10 rabbet plane and a set square to achieve this.


A quick change of handle for my Lie-Nielsen chisel. I turned this pairing handle myself, which is one of the wonderful advantages of these socket chisels. The longer handle makes for more accurate and comfortable pairing.


As you can see here, this Charlesworth method can be frightfully accurate.


This area was removed on the table saw. I am sure you will excuse me for not wanting to plane unnecessary by hand at this stage.


It got cleaned up with a Stanley number 78 rabbet plane. No sweat.


The mortises were first drilled out on the drill press and then fine tuned using a few chisels. The wood was simply to hard for my brace and Irwin auger bit, which is why I had to resort to the drill press.




One of these elevated areas will become the actual jaw of the vise. The other was kept intact to make drilling these holes easier.


Here I am fine tuning the actual jaw surface. Jason dubbed it a “compound springjoint”. What that basically means is that you first remove a bit of timber from the bottom of the jaw to ensure that the first contact between the jaws occur at the very top of the vise. As the tention increase the slight distortion (bending) of the arms results in the entire jaw face clamping down on the saw plate.

Once that is accomplished you hollow out the length of the jaw by a smidgen. This in turn will ensure that the ends of the jaws make contact first. As the clamping pressure increase the small gap in the middle close up and you end up with even pressure across the whole length of the jaw faces.


The area I mentioned earlier that was left intact also helped to keep the jaws stable on the bandsaw for this operation. One of the curves were too acute for the bandsaw so I had to use my shop made bow saw.


At this stage the little area pictured had served it’s purpose and was removed by hand planing, (after an ice cold beer). You would also put ice in your beer if your shop averaged 33-35 °, trust me.


The table saw once again came in handy for this angled cut.


As you can see the table saw left nasty burn marks, which were removed by hand planing.


The second bevel were all done by hand planing.


Next came the so-called “leather hinge”. It is an appropriately sized block of wood with leather on both sides that keeps the arms parallel to each other. If you read Jason’s article it will become a bit clearer.


By the way, you might be able to see by how much I chose to “off-set” the draw pin holes. As it turns out this is slightly too much. I realised by doing this that for extremely hard wood like this one should use less. Nothing disastrous happened but if the off-set was anymore I would have destroyed many hours of toil during glue-up.


Here you can see the leather hinge and (as per usual) my hardware improvisation.


Unfortunately I did not take a photo of the crucial step of drilling the holes for the two bolts that pass through both arms and the leather hinge. I employed insert nuts to anker the bolts. I used to struggle with these insert nuts. They never used to seat nice and straight. That is until I made this incredibly complex insert-nut-inserter. You screw the insert nut onto the device with enough of a leading section of threaded rod which keeps the nut lined up and launch it with your cordless drill.


So why the title “The Fountainhead”? I happened to listen to an audio recording of this classic 1943 novel while working on this project. At some stage I realised that the saw vise actually resembles the head of a fountain.

Warning: This post will now deteriorate into a pseudo-philosophical discussion of literature rather than woodwork. Please refrain from reading any further if you are allergic to such quasi-intellectual drivel.

The novel seems to be quite relevant to the sentiments expressed by many woodworkers that forms part of the resurgence in handcrafted furniture. There seems to be an underlying theme  that permeates through most of what is written online by the new generation of woodworkers. The theme can be seen as a reaction against consumerism (gone crazy), industrialisation and it’s decaying effect on quality. The Schwarz has in recent years linked it to American Anarchism.

Interestingly though, one of the main themes of the book is at odds with one of Christopher Schwarz’ ideas. He often argues that most designs that stood the test of time can probably not be improved on. I am particularly thinking of his ideas around workbench design. The main protagonist in the Fountainhead, Howard Roark challenges this idea with his approach to architecture. He is fiercely opposed to any form of copying. So it was with shock that I realised that I was pretty much copying Jason’s saw vise, which I usually do not like doing. Of course a workbench and a building is two different things, but it is interesting ideas to mull over on your journey towards your own philosophy. There are no rights and wrongs I am sure, just concepts to ponder over for woodworkers with a philosophical bent.

One more observation I made was extremely thought provoking. Probably the major theme portrayed through this story is that of individualism being more desirable than collectivism. According to the novel the individual should produce work that is true to themselves and original. They should not merely give the masses what they want, which is usually a slightly tweaked version of what has been done ad nauseum  in the past. What seems to betray this prime philosophical stance of the book, is the fact that in true American style it has a fairly happy ending. In other words, what the masses want.

Anyway, I think that any modern woodworker can benefit from reading this book. It will get you to think about and challenge your beliefs around design and woodworking in general.

I conclude this post with a picture of a Shaft-tailed Whydah (bottom) and a Redheaded Finch (top) that came to visit my shop this weekend. We will hopefully finish the project in part two.


Accurate sawing, off the grid – Miller’s Falls Langdon mitre box no. 75


It has been quite a few years now since becoming disillusioned with the DeWalt radial arm saw that used to belong to my father. I used to think that it is the best thing since cream cheese, but realise more and more as time went on how inaccurate  and dangerous the thing is. It takes ages of fiddling around and making copious test cuts to get it to saw square in two different planes. Then you might get two descent cuts and before you know it the blade grabs the stock and the setting is lost again. It also tends to burn the incredibly hard African timber I work with.

So I decided to look for an alternative solution. My research into the topic of mitre saw boxes confirmed that the Langdon ACME no. 75 would be my first choice. Some of the literature on the Old Tool Haven website suggests that “the Langdon Acme miter box represented the zenith of the Langdon Mitre Box Company’s achievements“.

After waiting patiently for the desired mitre box to become available, I finally bought a Langdon ACME from Jim Bode. Kathryn who is my usual contact person at Jim Bode Tools, was so kind as to send the Simonds saw (that came with it) to Mark Harrell at Bad Axe Tool Works for a sharpening. 

Mark had the following to say about the mitre box/saw combination: “NICE score on the Millers Falls No. 75 miter box setup. I have the exact same large miter box and saw here at the shop. The saw’s manufacture happened at some point BEFORE 1928, when Simonds abruptly ceased making hand and backsaws. There’s a bit of a mystery surrounding that, because they were competing quite nicely against Disston. My theory is some sort of dope deal transpired between the two manufacturers. I do know that of all Disston’s competitors (that they couldn’t either drive out of business or buy out), Simonds’ quality and marketing ran toe-to-toe against Disston. In any event, they quite surprisingly quit making hand and back saws in 1928—so, your saw pre-dates that.”


I tried to zoom in on Mark’s dating by looking at the mitre box. From looking at the Old Tool Haven write-ups the saw box was made after 1906 when Millers Falls bought the Langdon Mitre Box Company as mine has the Miller’s Falls brand name on it. Further more it has a 1909 patent date on it, thus after 1909 then. The pictures below show how the plate looked like before the Miller’s Falls takeover and what the mitre box in question looks like.


The following picture from the MF 1939 catalogue show a slightly more evolved mitre box, so mine should be older than that.

MF 1939 catalogue

I then had a look at the saw to see if that can help us to zoom in on the date of manufacture. I already knew it pre-dates 1928 from Mark Harrell’s information. According to the Saw Nuts website this medallion was used between 1922-1926. Thus this setup was probably manufactured during the early to mid 1920’s.


The mitre box finally arrived on the above date.



As a result of making a detour via Bad Axe Tools, the Simonds saw arrived a month later. Mark did an absolutely brilliant job of sharpening this beast, it is lethal.



I noticed that although I took every precaution to set it up perfectly, the saw drifted ever so slightly to the right. Luckily my personal tool historian/magician Bob Demers (The Valley Woodworker) mentioned to me last year that it might well do something like that. I therefore asked him how to fix the problem. This was his advise:

After making sure that the box is mechanically “tuned” to cut 90 degrees and the saw sharpened correctly. Having been done by no less than Harrell, you bet it is,

then comes the fine tuning of the saw set.

Unless the saw sharpener has the box with him, it is impossible for him to know witch way to tweak the saw set.

You see if the saw want to naturally favour one side or the other (Not following a straight line) it is because there is a tad more saw set on the offending side and it is compound by the small mechanical errors introduced by the box mechanisms .

The set being slightly more on that one side the saw is cutting an asymmetrical kerf and want to drift toward that side.

Think of two guys  paddling a canoe. If one guy is paddling a tad stronger on one side, the canoe will drift toward that side.

We are not talking of much of a difference so go easy….

The way to fix that is by GENTLY running a mill file (no handle) with NO pressure or a oil stone (must be flat, and never a waterstone, too soft)  on the side the saw is drifting toward

That action will just abrade the tip of the offending saw tooth set. Go easy, you do not need much to teak it.

Re check the action after each pass, often 1 or 2 pass is all that is needed.

You will probably hear or feel the file when it catch the offending proud saw tooth.

So if that is all, why don’t the saw filer do that themselves?

Because even if the saw was perfectly tuned to go straight, there is still some minutes  mechanical things in the box itself which could force it ever so slightly left or right

What we are doing in effect, is tweaking THAT saw for THAT mitre box

Hence why you must ensure first to eliminate all gross errors in the box mechanism and ensure that the saw is travelling true.

Once that is done, it is simply a matter of tweaking the set of the saw to achieve a true cut.

To test how true the saw is cutting, flip over one cut piece and put it back against the other fresh cut. They should lay flat and straight.

The error you see is TWICE the actual error that way

NEVER force the saw to correct a wandering cut. ALWAYS let the saw cut the way it wants.

As we often says: Get out of the way, let the saw cut. It want to cut straight that way, let it

Once the saw AND the box are adjusted to each other, it is possible that a check with a square will reveal a small error, but the saw will still cut square.

It is adjusted to that box…

At this point it is a wise idea to some how identify THAT saw goes with THAT box… Just saying, especially if you have a “few” 🙂

Once you get it as close as you can get it, just remember that other ultimate weapon at our disposal: A shooting board and a freshly sharpen heavy plane 🙂

Hope this answer your question.

It is faster and easier to tweak it than to write about it 🙂

NEVER used a long mitre saw (23 to 28 in long), free hand outside its box. It will bend

The spine is not strong enough to resist bending forces, it is designed to be restrained by the saw box guides.

Now if that is not a master on this topic then I do not know who is!! Thanks Bob!

So that was exactly what I did and true as Bob (pun intended) it took two light touched with the mill file and it was humming to a perfect 90 degree with every single cut.


I know Patrick Leach often speak of the “tool model”. I mean no offence to Patrick, but I think this is the tool supermodel of the woodworking blogosphere. I might be slightly biased, but what the heck.


As you can see here the cut is sublime, all credit to Mark Harrell.