Volume: 136
Issue: December 2011 - January 2012

Woodworking in America: Ultimate Joinery Weekend

Story by Bob Bridigum
Photos by Bob Bridigum

Intro to WIA Show

Seven hundred and ten miles door-to-door and I’m finally in Kentucky, right across the river from Cincinnati, none the worse for wear, except for a sore rear end that has molded to the shape of my car seat from twelve hours of nearly continuous pounding.  Tomorrow is the first day of the Woodworking In America (WIA) “Ultimate Joinery Weekend”.  After listening to Jeff Hand and Mike Siemsen rave about this event for two years, I just had to check it out.

WIA did not disappoint.  Four hundred plus attendees and I were treated to total immersion in hand tool working for two and a half days.  The program consisted of eight tracks running simultaneously containing a total of sixty four presentations and demonstrations by very well known woodworkers.  There was just no way to see it all, or as it turned out even half because the ninth track was the “Market Place”.  More on that later.

Initially I thought, “must choose wisely”.  Later after talking to fellow woodworkers it became clear “just choose anything at all” because it was all great.  What follows are some ramblings about the sessions I choose and the people I met.

Ron Herman – Combination Planes

More than 15 years ago I bought a Stanley 45 that I located on e-bay.  Bought it direct from the owner, like new in the original box with all the parts, cheap.  When the plane came, I unpacked it, tried to set it up and use it - unsuccessfully.  Put it back in the box and up on the shelf where it has been ever since.  You can imagine how thrilled I was to find this two hour demonstration of the Stanley 45 and 55 by Ron Herman.


Ron is the fifth generation owner/manager of Antiquity Builders of Ohio, a 107 year old company that does historically accurate restoration projects using traditional hand tools and techniques.  Around nine employees work for him depending on how much business there is and even with the economy in the tank, Ron’s crew is currently working on three sites simultaneously. Ron started working in the business at the age of eight and yes, his Dad was his master when he apprenticed.  


Antiquity Builders use Stanley 45s and 55s to make traditional moldings on the job site.  They’ll have six or so of each plane set up for different cuts and run them like an assembly line, creating intricate crown molding on a 20 foot board.  They end up with an exact copy of the original 19th century piece, made using the same techniques as the original.  That would be a sight to behold.

Ron took the planes apart and explained the function of each piece, showed us how to set them up, and best of all we got to give them a test drive.  It was nothing like my attempt 15 years ago. These planes actually work.

A Stanley 55 is a 45 on steroids.  “Some engineer at Stanley had too much time on his hands and put his effort into make the most complicated device he could think of”, said Ron. There are a couple of extra things the 55 can do like run at an angle to the work (called spring). 

               Assortment of Stanley planes                     Stanley model 55


          Standard molding cutter #106

If you have ever looked closely at one of these planes you have seen the numbers engraved on each blade.  These numbers are to molding what Pantone is to colors. Moldings were standardized in the early 1900s so you could order a 106 molding from Sears and they would make it for you.  The profile is exactly the same as the 106 blade of the Stanley combination planes.  The molding numbers are the same today.   


Ron’s most notable yet printable quote was: “After the age of 50 you get up in the morning and spin the wheel of pain to see what is going to hurt today for no good reason”.  His unprintable quote was about Tool Collectors.


Christopher Schwarz – 12 Rules for Traditional Tools Chests

Chris Schwarz is always entertaining, knowledgeable, and often opinionated. He started his talk by calling Benjamin Seaton “a spoiled brat”.  In 1796 Ben’s father went out and bought him a complete set of cabinetmaker’s tools.  Ben built a tool chest to house them all, closed the lid and went off to “pursue other interests”.  The tools were never used, talk about brand new in the box!  The tool chest stayed in the family until 1910 when it was given to a museum -  so 215 years later we have the best representation of 18th century cabinet maker’s tools that exist today.

“It is a good thing he never used the tool chest because it would fall apart”, said Chris as an introduction to tool chest design.  Chris is a great researcher, always starting with a spreadsheet.  He investigated the design of many traditional tool chests, including Seaton’s.  His talk was about why the chests were built the way they were, not about how to build them. “Nothing here was done by accident”, said Chris.  For instance the chests are all about the same length, not surprisingly the length of the longest tool. The height was such that it could be used as an assembly surface or saw bench in a pinch.  The depth was determined from the longest comfortable (no back strain) reach of the cabinet maker from the front of the chest to the bottom rear compartment.

Compartments for all the tools, no French Fitting           Three drawers stacked on slides


A complete set of molding planes fit in the rear compartment, toe down (so the blades don’t fall out).  All the profiles are easy to see from above.  The saw till was in front and raised off the floor to keep the saws from rusting.  The middle compartment housed all the other plane like objects.

The chest also contained two or three drawers, on slides, for easy access to the content.  The drawers held all the remaining tools like chisels, marking, gauges, hammers, etc. If you are interested in any of this, Chris has written a book on the traditional tool chest.  I bought one and spent too much time reading it one night because I couldn’t put it down.  The book reads just like Chris talks.  It is very entertaining.  You can get the book at Chris’s new company, “Lost Art Press”.  There is also a DVD.

Chris Schwarz holding forth after the talk. No one wanted to leave








The Market Place and Hand Tool Olympics

“Abandon hope all yea who enter here in” goes through my mind every time I enter the Market Place.  There are over 50 suppliers of tools here, mostly hand tools.  You can test drive most everything. There were only a couple of lonely power tools vendors and you couldn’t use any of their product.  Bad Axe, Blue Spruce, Brese Planes, Bridge City and on and on were all here.  These folks make tools that are often works of art - translation, very fine and very expensive. Lost Art Press had a booth also where I met Chris and his wife and bought his new book, Anarchist’s Tool Chest.

By far the best part of the Market Place for me was to meet Larry Williams and Don McDonnell of Old Street Tools (formerly Clarke and Williams).  These guys make the finest 18th century style wooden molding planes you can buy.  Colonial Williamsburg has and uses nearly 400 of their planes. Don and Larry make all the planes by hand in the British style prevalent in the late 1700’s.  For more than 10 years I’ve coveted a set of hollows and rounds (now $3,400) and have settled for buying their DVDs.  I found out the current waiting list is more than two years long.  I could be dead by then!

After chatting for awhile it must have become clear I am a fan because Don asked me if I’d be interested in a beading plane.  They had just finished a run and had one extra that they brought to the show.  Needless to say I bought it on the spot.  After a 15 minute private lesson with Don I could actually use the plane correctly, effortlessly producing a ¼ bead on the edge of a three foot board.  I’m in heaven.


Hand Tool Olympics

The other high point of the Market Place was Mike Siemsen’s Hand Tool Olympics.  Mike and nine other woodworkers from the Society of Period Furniture Makers and the Minnesota Woodworkers Guild manage the event.  They hauled a van load of equipment all the way from Minnesota and set up for a friendly contest of hand tools skills including boring, rip & cross cut sawing, dove tails, jointing the edge of the board you just ripped, and cutting tenons.  All events are timed, scores kept, and prizes awarded. I didn’t win anything but did rip a three foot long board in 23 seconds, mostly straight and square..  What a sweet saw. 

The author and Jeff Hand give the two man veneer saw a go

Jeff Hand showed me how to use a two man veneer saw made at Mike Siemsen’s School.  It was a lot harder than it looked especially from my end. Jeff chose the guide end and gave me the power end.

Late on Saturday I swung by the Hand Tool Olympics area and found this guy cutting his dove tails for the contest.  He was using a hack saw and screwdriver.  Un freaken believable.  The tip of the screwdriver had been honed but so what. 

Who could do this?  His name is Rob Cosman. Yep, the guy with dozens of YouTube videos and DVDs. A group of us stood spellbound as first the tails and then the pins took shape. We held our collective breaths as the two pieces were fit together perfectly.  Guess I need more practice. Never thought of using a screwdriver.  Could that be the secret?

It turns out that Rob had just stopped by Mike Siemsen's booth to chat when he noticed a set of marginal looking tools Mike keeps out to make the point that good quality woodworking - dovetails even - can be accomplished with out investing a lot of money.  With an $8 hacksaw, a $2 screwdriver (sharpened like a chisel) a block of wood used to pound the chisel, and a virtually free marking gauge (a scrap of wood with a protruding nail) a person can turn out some very fine dovetails - as Rob Cosman demonstrated.  Mike says that a number of other less experienced and certainly less famous woodworkers have had equally good results using his low cost dovetail kit.

Rob Cosman cutting dovetails w/screwdriver  Mike's low cost dovetail kit &                 Rob's nearly perfect dovetail


Roy Underhill – Panel & Frame by hand methods
 The room was full, the hour was approaching and in walks Roy Underhill playing a hand saw.  In the next class I found out how bad that is for saw tensioning, but that was later.  Roy is best known for his 30 year run on PBS’s Woodwright’s Shop.  He is credited with doing more to promote woodworking without modern machines than perhaps any other person.  He is a celebrity for sure but he is also warm and sharing, more like one of us than someone famous.

The room was full mostly because Roy is famous but also because things are always happening around Roy. I know for a fact that at least one person in the audience had a stash of bandages just in case. Roy’s tools are sharp and his demonstrations are sometimes interrupted by blood letting.  He kept pretending to cut himself just to keep us on the edge of our seats.

         Roy Cutting tenons, no back saw                    Plane-Cam in action

His presentation was better than the T.V. show, funnier, and interactive.  Roy’s camera work was the best in the WIA show.  He even gave us a planes eye view of the work as he went through the steps required to build a frame and panel.  That is some trick, operating a hand plane one handed while holding a video camera in the other.

Roy holding a piece of the Roubo bench

Then it happened! Roy Underhill broke Chris Schwarz’s Roubo Bench, the one featured in the Aug. 2010 issue of Popular Woodworking.  He was hammering in a holdfast when the bench let go.  This became the most talked about event at this year's WIA show.  When it happened the whole room held its breath.  Roy just stood their staring at the piece on the floor.  No one could believe what just happened.  Roy picked up the piece and pointed out that the failure occurred along a punk line in the top that Chris had talked about filling with epoxy in the article.  Roy then passed the piece around so we could all see.  The piece did not come back.  Roy pleaded with the audience to give the piece back “so the bench could be repaired”.  Really, he was worried about the piece of Chris’s Roubo Bench ending up on e-bay.  Yes, Chris and Roubo have become that well known.



Ron Herman – Saw Sharpening Demystified

I thought a saw buck was slang for a one dollar bill.  That may be true but a buck is also a portable box containing around a dozen hand saws.  A till is a fixed box (mounted in the shop) full of 100 hand saws for a full set.  If you call these by the wrong name, Ron will tell you about it.  He did this many times during the two hour demo of saw sharpening, including the time at the end for some hands on.

                                                     A Saw Buck






Assuming your eyes haven’t glazed over yet, read on.  Ron started with the basics, the shape of the teeth on rip and cross cut saws and why they are the way they are.  Starting with the ugliest looking saw he showed us how to joint the teeth (level them) and then file the correct shape.  All the while he is telling us what things are called.  Sharpening was next, then set.  Ron doesn’t like much set since it makes the saw harder to control. He recommends very little and only on the 1st half.  Finally he tensioned the saw.  When he was done, the saw cut so effortlessly, so straight - almost like magic.

Ron sharpening teeth

Ron has hundreds of hand saws, using them everyday in his business, Antiquity Builders.  Why so many you might wonder?. Some of the variables include: rip or crosscut, hard or softwood, teeth per inch, saw length, and thrust (the angle the handle makes with the body of the saw).  It easily takes 100 saws to include all the important variations.

So how long should a saw be, you didn’t ask.  Here is how to size a saw.  Stand with your arm stretched out parallel to the floor.  Measure the distance from your shoulder (where the shotgun goes) and the crook of your index finger on your out stretched arm.  That is the length of a saw that fits you.  When they don’t fit, they pull out of the work or hit the floor when you are using them.

Mostly what I got out of the two hours with Ron was a new vocabulary and a sense of how much there is to know, that I don’t.  Thank goodness Mike Siemsen runs a saw sharpening class right here in town.

Robert Lang – SketchUp Essentials and Gold Mine

To wrap up, the last three hours were spent learning how to really use SketchUp for woodworking.  Robert Lang is a senior editor for Popular Woodworking.  I watched Bob make parts and complete models with amazing ease.  He did something in two minutes that took me 40 minutes to do the first time.  He showed many things I’m not going to bore you with (sigh of relief?) but here are two key tips.
• Navigate with the mouse buttons
• Learn keystroke short cuts (6)
Last thing, Robert has a DVD so I can practice anywhere I have my computer.

So, would I do it again?  That is a resounding yes, even if I have to drive all the way by myself.  I’m hoping this article will inspire a few of you to make the trek with me.  Guarantee it won’t disappoint.

Bob Bridigum
Program Committee Chair