Tools of the Trade

“Man is a tool using animal. Without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all.”—Thomas Carlyle

On a visit to the shop in early March, Tia Kratter spied my workbench. Her eyes lighting up, she said, “There’s a painting!” The other day, she posted this beauty on Facebook. As one follower said, “What sorcery is this?” Well said! Within a week or two, the painting had sold. I’m hoping the buyer orders a frame made on “Tim’s Bench.”
Tia Kratter watercolor

Tia Kratter, “Tim’s Bench,” 2020. Watercolor 16″ x 16″

carving chiselsI have to admit that I was a little horrified to have been caught not keeping my tools more carefully arranged to protect their edges. As the Thomas Carlyle quote suggests, there’s a primal significance to a craftsman’s tools. They are, after all, a means of his livelihood. They also become an extension of his hands and body. The relationship defies description. Explain to me how you use a fork and I’ll explain to you how I use a plane. So, especially with edge tools like these, one should develop good habits (better than I have, clearly!) of how to set them down in such a way that their edges don’t get knicked—more like in the photo at right.

The hand plane in the painting is one of my very favorites. It’s a Lie-Nielsen No. 1 bronze bench plane I’ve probably owned for 20 years. So I’m pleased that happened to be what caught Tia’s eye. At just 5-1/2″ long, it’s handy for frame-making. In the background is an Australian rosewood and brass rabbet plane. There are also various chisels and carving tools, and a 4″ combination square I keep in my apron.

Here’s a photo of my bench with some of my most important tools (amidst shavings and chips from the tools).

Tim's BenchYou can see the little Lie-Nielsen No. 1 plane and the little 4″ Starret combination square that are in the painting. To the left of that square is a Bridge City 45-degree combination square I love and use frequently. Left of that are a few carving gouges and a skew (just a few of maybe a couple of dozen of my carving tools), with two rabbet planes behind those. Rabbet planes have blades that are the full width of the tool, so you can plane a rabbet, and are also especially handy in frame-making because you can plane the full width of a fillet or right up against a bead, as Eric’s doing at left. The smaller rabbet plane is another favorite I use all the time—an English Clifton No. 410, just 5/8″ wide. The one behind is the Australian rosewood and brass rabbet plane in the painting. It’s 1″ wide. At the center rear of the photo are a couple well used Sorby bench chisels from a set I have ranging from 1/8″ to 1-1/2″ wide. Tim carvingThose are indispensable, especially for joint-making, but I also sometimes use them for chamfering, as in the photo at right. At back right is a favorite German EC Emmerich pearwood bench plane with a lignum vitae sole. It has an adjustable mouth. In front of that is the Lie-Nielsen, and to the right of it is a classic old Stanley No. 4, which is 9-1/2″ long—a more common size. (I don’t know how old it is, but I bought it at a tool swap about 30 years ago. I use it less often than I do the small plane, but it’s definitely a stand-by.)

Finally, the bench itself, is a tool. I made this one maybe a year ago for the front studio off the showroom. Visible on the front is a Record vise I fit with an exceptionally wide and long maple jaw so I have a surface to rest my hands on when carving molding that’s clamped in the vise, as I’m doing in the photo above. There’s an identical vise to the right, out of the picture (behind me in the smaller picture here), so I can use the two for holding long moldings against the front edge of the bench.

Miter viseSpeaking of vises, I’ve got to include a miter vise, like the one at left. Maybe the most used hand tools in the shop, we have a half dozen or so of these classics on a big table. Sometimes they’re all in use. They’re primarily to glue up miters, of course, but we frequently use chisels, planes, gouges on the frame members in these vises, finessing the joints before gluing them to get them to meet just right on the face.

Here’s Trevor’s bench, below, with his favorite planes at his fingertips—including two great Lie-Nielsen rabbet planes—along with a few other crucial tools.

workbench and toolsMy least-used plane? About 30 years ago, when I first started exploring making hardwood frames from scratch, I became fascinated by the Stanley 55 Combination Plane and managed to lay my hands on the one below. Patented in 1894, this monster came with four boxes of interchangeable cutters for cutting all manner of moldings and molding elements. Did I use it much? No. But before I decided it was more trouble than it was worth, I sharpened all 52 of the cutters. It did reinforce lessons in the versatility that’s integral to handwork, and is especially vital for good frame-making. In any case, I learned to sharpen edge tools—including the knives we now use in molding heads on the table saw to shape moldings.

Had to blow a lot of dust off this baby to put it out to photograph!


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9 thoughts on “Tools of the Trade

  1. What a wonderful painting Tia Kratter has made! I enjoyed this account of your tools very much–perhaps best to call it a ‘biography’ of them, as each tool clearly has a dynamic life of its own for the craftsman.

  2. Wonderful. As a poet and preacher, this reminds me that words are tools too. I should treasure the ability to use them well. Just because I don’t use them to make lots of money doesn’t mean I’m no good at them. Just use them for different purposes.

  3. Tim, It is a treat to see this appreciation for the tools that you and your assistants use. Chisels, planes and saws are to the woodworker what brushes and scalpels are to the artist and surgeon respectively. Real extensions of the all the sense faculties and connections with mind’s consciousness. When used with wisdom and adeptness the results can transcend the mundane and become art, as do your frames.


    • Only occasionally on the rabbets, actually, and in those cases, only to straighten/flatten out flaws. Most often we use them on the face of the frame to give a finishing pass on fillets and adjacent to elements like beads, thereby taking out mill marks. It’s easier to do with the plane than by sanding. We also sometimes use them to clean up the shoulders of tenons.

        • It’s been a while since I bought one. We used to always use Stanley, but there are knock-offs. As long as it’s this type of cast-iron vise, I don’t think you can go wrong. You can probably find a used one that’s still rock solid. These things last!

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