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Most vices won’t let you file a nut or saddle to shape. Their jaws are too wide and get in the way. Stew Mac make a special vice with tall narrow jaws to get around the problem. I haven’t tried it but I should think that it works fine.  However, it’s quite unnecessary. A simple pair of wooden jaws does the job perfectly well.


The jaws in the photographs below were intended as a prototype. I was planning to make a pair of jaws out of gauge plate or aluminium sheet and wanted to check that I’d got the size about right and that the idea was feasible. It turned out that the wooden version worked so well that I didn’t need to bother.




As I hope can be seen in the photographs, the device is little more than a couple of pieces of maple about 5mm thick, hinged together at their lower ends with glass fibre reinforced tape.



The soprano ukulele that I made from scraps of wood too nice to throw away (but too small for anything else) turned out to be a nice sounding and surprisingly loud instrument. I thought it would be fun to make another.

The classic wood for ukes is Koa, a tree in the Acacia family, which grows only in the Hawaiian archipelago, although it’s closely related to Australian Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) and the wonderfully named – after its smell when sawn – Raspberry Jam wood (Acacia acuminata). I was pretty sure that I remembered having a set of Koa somewhere in my stash of guitar wood and eventually I found it.

After a bit of thought, I reckoned that there would be enough material for two ukuleles – one soprano and one tenor. However, as soon as I began to clean it up with a view to book-matching fronts and backs, I ran into trouble. The Koa had a beautiful and dramatic figure, but it was very difficult to plane without causing tear out. That’s often true of highly figured woods of course, but this this was much worse than usual.

A drum sander would have solved the problem – except that I don’t have one. So I tackled it in the old fashioned way.

First I used this large scraper plane to produce a good surface on the face side of each piece before gluing them up, book-matched, for fronts and backs.





Now, working from the other side, I needed to get them down to a thickness of under 2mm. Fortunately, the wood had been well sawn and was only around 3mm thick so there wasn’t too much material to remove. This Krenov-type plane with a short thick blade set at an angle of 55° performed better than a plane with the usual 45° blade angle. There was still some tear out, but it did allow me to approach the final thickness without too much anxiety.

The plane was made by David Barron and it’s nicely designed with a soft rounded shape that’s comfortable to hold. It has a sole of lignum vitae and a fairly tight mouth.





For the really difficult patches, where the grain was running all over the place, I switched to a toothing plane. This one is a lovely old tool made by Varvill and Son, York, well over 100 years ago. It bears name stamps of two previous owners but it’s in such good condition that I suspect that more of its life has been spent in a tool chest than on the bench. It’s really intended for preparing a surface before laying veneer and, although it’s able to flatten the wildest grain without tearing it, it removes wood very slowly.





To speed things up in the less wild areas, I used an ordinary No 4 bench plane fitted with a modified blade. I’ve written about this blade before, so I won’t repeat myself except to explain that the rationale behind it is that the individual serrations are too small to grab and tear out large chunks of wayward grain while, at the same time, being wide enough to remove material fairly quickly – certainly a lot faster than the wooden toothing plane.





Having got close to the final thickness with this pair of toothing planes,  I finished the surface with a small Lie Nielsen scraper plane and an ordinary cabinet scraper.





Here’s a line up of the workhorses that I put to use.




And here are fronts, backs and ribs ready to assemble.




Among the treasure trove of information and tips and tricks at Frank Ford’s website there’s a description of how to turn a single-edge razor blade into a miniature cabinet scraper for repairs of guitar finishes. Click here to read it.



I thought that this was a really clever idea and immediately ordered a box of blades to try it out. Ford says that he draws the edge of the blade across a round piece of hard steel such as a screwdriver shank to create a fine hook just as one might finish a full size cabinet scraper.

I’m not sure why, but I couldn’t make it work. Maybe it was my technique or perhaps the steel of the blade had hardened during the sharpening process but despite repeated trials all I could produce was a ragged edge that scraped less well than a blade straight from the box.


The solution was first to grind off the bevelled edge of the blade;




then to make the blade edge straight and square on a diamond stone;




and finally to turn a hook with a burnisher in the usual way.




These little scrapers work extremely well if you need to remove polish or varnish and they’re easy to re-sharpen.



Most woodworking vices are designed to hold pieces of wood with sides that are parallel. This is a problem for instrument makers because much of the wood they work with is curved or tapered.

So guitar makers frequently use a carvers’ vice, which has adjustable jaws, to get around the difficulty.  Dan Erlewine uses one in his excellent series of videos, Trade Secrets.  And here’s one in my own workshop.



But they’re big, heavy, ugly things (mine is a particularly repellent shade of green) and whenever possible I prefer the simpler solution of a moving accessory vice jaw. This is no more than a block of wood with one gently curved side that allows it to rotate to accommodate the work piece. The flat side is lined with cork and there’s a thin sheet of plywood is glued to the top to maintain it in position while the vice is tightened.








I’ve written about these before (see here) so I’ll only say that they’re easy to make and that they’re very effective in gripping gently tapering (10° or less) objects.


The device below  is a little more complicated in having 2 jaws connected at the bottom with a flexible hinge made of leather. It was originally intended to hold the head of a violin or cello  bow while the mortise for the hair was being cut – an invention of Andrew Bellis, who is a bow-maker in Bournemouth.

The 2 jaws are slightly thicker at one end (hence the arrow on the top) which gives it a head start when it comes to accommodating a tapered shape. The flexibility of the hinge allows it to adapt to objects with complex curves. It’s easy to make, too.







Here’s a similar idea but in a more elaborate form. I took the jaws off a small Record vice and substituted cork-lined wood. On one side there’s a permanent version of the moving jaw described earlier. A thin metal bar located by a 3mm rod keeps it in position. I’m hoping the photographs will make things clear.






A couple of photographs of it in action. In the first it’s holding the neck of the soprano ukulele that I mentioned in a previous post. The second shows it gripping the head of a violin bow while it is being re-haired.





I’m pleased with how these vice jaws turned out. And it’s certainly convenient having them immediately available to hold an awkwardly shaped work piece. However, I have to say that they’re significantly more effort to make than the simple devices described earlier. Unless you’re dealing with tapers and curves a lot, it may not be worth the time and trouble.

Stanley made two side rebate planes, numbered 98 and 99, which were mirror images of each other, designed to cut either the left or right vertical sides of a channel or dado. I found one in a secondhand tool a long time ago, and then spent years looking for its opposite number.


While searching, I came across other designs of side rebate planes some of which ingeniously incorporated the ability to cut on left and right sides in a single tool. They’re attractive little devices and I struggled to resist buying them.



However, side rebate planes have two defects. The first is that the blades are hard to sharpen. It’s crucially important to maintain the exact angle of the cutting edge relative to the long axis of the blade because there’s no capacity for adjustment in the plane itself. Get it wrong and the blade cuts only the top or bottom.

The second defect is rather more serious: even sharpened and set up properly, they’re useless. I mean that literally: it’s not that these planes don’t work but that problems they could solve or jobs they could make easier never seem to crop up.

At least that’s what I thought until a couple of weeks ago when I found that a truss rod that I was installing into a guitar neck was a whisker too fat to enter the groove that I had routed. I could have got the router out again, but a side rebate plane provided a quicker and easier solution. A few passes and the truss rod was a nice snug fit.



Of course, I’ve been writing about my own experience. Other woodworkers may find side rebate planes so handy that they like keep a pair on the back of the bench. If so, I hope they’ll comment and describe the tasks they use them for.

Pattern makers often used long gouges and chisels with a crank between the blade and the handle. This allowed them to operate the tool deep into a workpiece without the handle catching on the edge. In his Dictionary of Tools, R. A. Salaman calls them trowel-shanked, but one often hears them referred to as cranked or crank-handled too.


trowel shank gouge


I’ve got a couple of long in-cannel gouges which I suspect were originally straight and later modified to achieve the same end. Perhaps R. Myers (the name stamped on the handle of the gouge) needed a tool with a cranked shank in a hurry, didn’t have time to obtain one, and so decided to make the best of what he had. The steel at the bent part of the shank is dark and discoloured, which supports the idea because it would surely have been necessary to heat the shank to bend it successfully.



Mr Myer’s talent for improvisation and economy prompted me to try something similar with a small chisel blade. I’d often thought that a small crank-handled chisel would be the perfect tool for cleaning up squeezed out glue when putting braces and harmonic bars on guitar soundboards but the only ones that I had come across were too big for what I had in mind, and too expensive as well.

I removed the handle from the chisel, wrapped the blade in a wet rag to prevent the important part of the tool losing its temper and then, after heating the shank to red heat with a propane torch, bent it up about 15°.

When it had cooled, I put the handle back on and was delighted to find that it worked just about as well as I hoped it would. The flat underside of the blade acts as a jig and prevents it digging in, and the raised handle allows it to be used in places where accessibility is restricted.



A rather good joke by artist Colin Baxter. Made out of an old beech wood block plane, drift wood and some scraps of veneer, it’s in an exhibition at Bell Fine Art, Winchester, who kindly let me take a photograph.


Bruce Hoadley, in his excellent book Understanding Wood, writes that, when people who are thinking about taking up woodcarving ask him which tools to buy first, he tells them to get a set of good sharpening stones. It may not be what they expected to hear, but it’s sound advice. Most woodworking tools are worthless unless they’re properly sharp.

The trouble is that, once you’ve tumbled to this basic fact, sharpening can develop into something of an obsession. Over the years I built up a collection of stones, all acquired in the hope of obtaining a better edge. Many were natural stones, often bought for almost nothing at flea markets or second hand tool shops, but hard to identify. Although some of them were capable of producing a fine edge, most proved tediously slow to cut. As many other woodworkers have done, I discovered that synthetic waterstones and monocrystalline diamond whetstones did the job better and faster.

I didn’t know what to do with my unused oilstones until I heard about Sean Hellman, a professional woodworker based in Devon, UK who’ll make you just about anything in wood from a coracle to a garden bench. Sean has a longstanding interest in these natural stones, and I was pleased to let him have the three photographed below for his growing collection.

This one is probably a Charnley Forrest stone:


And this may be a Dalmore blue:


The label identifies this one as a Yellow Lake:



In exchange for the stones, Sean generously gave me one of the fan birds that he carves. It’s hard to believe, but these birds are made from a single piece of green wood.





This is how he does it:


A couple of years ago, Wouter Hilhorst, an architect and luthier from Rotterdam, showed me some violin-making planes that he had carved from oak and boxwood. There are a few photographs of them here. Some of these planes were in the Japanese tradition, others miniature versions of western planes, but all had been made from a single block of wood.

I had made several small planes for instrument-making too, but I’d always used the Krenov sandwich technique, which I’ve written about at length before. (See here and here. A few days ago, I tried Wouter’s method using a small block of lignum vitae, which I reckoned would have the right properties of hardness and self-lubrication.

This is what I managed to come up with. The coin, £1 sterling, 22.5mm (≈7/8 inches) in diameter, is there to give an idea of scale; the long shavings prove that plane actually works.

The blade is a Japanese blade from Dictum, a generous gift from Wouter, and the wedge was fashioned out of a scrap of Rio rosewood.

This photograph of it with a No 4 smoother gives a sense of its diminutive size.


Click on a thumbnail to see larger images

Although I was sure that I’d read somewhere that there was a way of using a mirror to help judge when a drill bit was truly vertically, I struggled to find an account of how it was actually done. Eventually, after a lot of googling, I came across this letter and illustration published in Popular Mechanics nearly 80 years ago.

To find out if it worked, I bought a cheap handbag mirror.

First I cut off the hinge and trimmed back the plastic mount along one edge.

Placed next to the drill bit, the mirror showed when the drill was vertical…

… and when it wasn’t.

It’s a simple idea but I was impressed by how well it worked. A problem though, is that the mirror only tells you whether the drill is vertical in one axis. You have to move the mirror around the drill to check whether it’s vertical in the other axis and while you’re doing this, it’s easy to lose the vertical on the first axis.

One solution might be to have an L-shaped mirror or, perhaps better still, a mirror with a hole in its centre. Then, all you’d have to do to check that the drill was truly vertical in both axes would be to move your head.

So I ground a small hole in the centre of the other mirror and tried it out.

This is the view when the drill is vertical.

And when it’s miles off.

Of course, you don’t need a mirror to see when the drill is as far out as that. The benefit is that it makes it easy to spot small deviations from vertical.

Does it work in practice? As a test, I drilled ten 2mm diameter holes at 10mm intervals along a line in a piece of MDF and stuck cocktail sticks into them.

Not perfect – but not bad either. Certainly better than I was able to do in a repeat of the experiment when I used a small try square instead of the mirror as a guide, as you can see below.

Obviously, the best way to drill a truly vertical hole is to use a drill press. But there are occasions when this is impossible because the work piece is too large or too awkwardly shaped. It’s then that this trick with mirrors might come in handy.

This tool, designed and made by Brian Hart, is a purfling marker. As violin makers will know, when moved around the edge of a violin plate, it marks closely spaced parallel lines a few millimetres inside the perimeter to guide the subsequent cutting and chiselling-out of the narrow channel into which the purfling is laid.

If necessary, the distance between the lines can be altered by placing shims between the marking blades and there’s a screw mechanism to change the offset of the blades and allow precise adjustment of the distance of the purfling channel from the edge of the plate. A feature of the design is that the handle and centre of gravity are below the marking blades. I find that this makes it easier to use than the usual design of purfling marker, which has the handle on top.

Here’s the corner of a cello where the purfling was marked out using this tool.

But of course it only works where there’s an edge. It’s no use if you want to imitate the Brescian makers and create an elaborate pattern of the sort seen on the violin below.

(I’m grateful to Andrew Sutherland, a violin maker and restorer in Lincoln, for providing this photograph and information about the violin. It was made in Dresden, Germany around 1870. Andrew reckons that the ornamentation was done by a purfling specialist in the workshop where the instrument was made after it had been completed and varnished. There are more photographs here.)


A possible solution occurred to me when I read Jeff Peachey’s description of how he sharpened the tips of a pair of jeweller’s forceps to make a tool to cut thin strips of tissue for book restoration. I wondered if the same idea could be adapted to make a freehand purfling marker.

Here I’ve re-shaped the tips of a pair of stainless steel forceps using a slip stone to create bevels on the inner faces, and drilled and tapped a hole for a small machine screw.

With the addition of a fold of brass shim stock between the blades, the width of the gap between the tips of the forceps can be adjusted precisely.

It works fairly well and can be used either freehand or to scribe around a template. I found it best to make one pass with the marker and then use a knife to deepen the cuts rather than trying to use the forceps to cut deeply. Here are some first experiments.

A little decoration goes a long way and not everyone believes that violins are improved by a double line of purfling and stylised floral motifs. On the whole, I think this ornamentation works better on cellos and viols than it does on smaller instruments. Still, there are times when a flourish is desirable – the fingerboards and tail pieces of baroque violins, for example – so my new purfling marker will probably be used occasionally.

A comment on the previous post asked about setting the honing angle.

Here’s one way of doing it. Set a sliding bevel to the angle you’re after. (I chose 30°.) Then, after fitting the chisel into the mould, adjust the position of the mould in the honing jig, by eye, so that the longitudinal axis of the chisel runs parallel with the blade of the sliding bevel.



I glued a strip of wood across the underside of the mould so that it can be located in the honing jig at the same angle every time. And that’s it.



Eventually, I suppose, repeated honing will shorten the chisel and increase the angle of the secondary bevel. That will mean that it’s time to regrind the primary bevel and repeat this process to restore the angle of the secondary bevel.

A point I forgot to mention in the earlier post is that it’s worth creating a stop in the moulding at its upper end to prevent any tendency for the chisel to slide up while it’s being honed. Here you can see a stop formed by the lip that mirrors the indentation between the socket and the handle of the chisel.


A pair of chisels reground with left and right skewed edges is almost essential for cleaning out the sockets of lap dovetails. These chisels are useful for other tasks as well – tidying up the inside of the pegbox of a violin or cello, for example. I’ve got several pairs in different sizes and, although I don’t use them everyday, there are jobs where no other tool will do.

Actually, that isn’t quite true. A fishtail chisel makes a good substitute and, because it can work into both left and right pointing corners, you only need one tool rather than a pair. Last Summer, visiting Mark Bennett in his workshop in Yorkshire (see below) I saw him using one made by Lie-Nielsen. It was such an attractive looking tool that, even though I didn’t really need it, I couldn’t resist buying one to try.

After it arrived, I honed it, maintaining the 25° angle of the original grind. Perhaps it was my lack of skill – keeping such a small bevel flat on the stone wasn’t easy – but I never managed to get it properly sharp. What’s more, the edge that I did achieve didn’t stand up to use on hardwoods.

Of course, there’s an obvious solution to both these problems: create a secondary bevel at a slightly steeper angle. Indeed, Lie-Nielsen recommend exactly that in the leaflet that comes with the chisel.

However, I was reluctant to do this freehand because, although I was sure that it would work well enough the first few times, I knew that in the long run I’d be unable to maintain the same angle. This would mean that I’d end up with a rounded secondary bevel that would require more and more honing with each sharpening to get a decent edge. And, quite apart from the extra time this would take, it’s a bad idea to hone or grind a fishtail more than absolutely necessary. There isn’t much metal there in the first place and with each grinding the cutting edge gets progressive narrower. 

A honing jig would have solved the problem, except for the fact that I couldn’t make  the conical shape of the shaft of the tool  fit securely into any of the jigs in my workshop.

In the end, I got around this difficulty by casting a mould out of the sort of two-part wood filler that sets hard in about 30 minutes. I’ve written about this technique for holding awkwardly shaped object before (scroll down in the Tools and Jigs section of the website) so I won’t go into it in detail here. But briefly, you mix a generous quantity of the filler, spread it on a board (in this case a thin piece of wood of a size that would fit into an Eclipse honing jig), cover with a layer of cling film, and press the object you want to mould into it, holding it place with a weight or a clamp until the filler sets. Then, of course, you can take it out and get rid of the cling film.

I’m hoping that the photographs below will the idea clear:

And it worked – at least for one of the objectives. The edge on the chisel was keen enough to slice soft paper towel and to pare endgrain.

Whether it will achieve the second objective of minimising attrition of the blade with repeated sharpenings is another matter. Time will tell.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about a simple device that made it easy to plane a taper on small pieces of wood – something that’s hard to do accurately if you try to hold the wood in a vice. (The piece is still available in the Tools and Jigs section of the website.) After I’d posted it, Jeff Peachey, who specialises in the conservation of books, sent me a photograph of a rather similar jig that he had made, which had the advantage of an adjustable endstop. I’ve been meaning to incorporate this modification ever since, but have only now got around to it. Below is a photograph of the original jig with a glued endstop of 1.5mm plywood.

To add a adjustable endstop, I inserted two short lengths of 6mm studding, drilling the pilot holes under size and then tapping the holes before screwing in the studding. Because the studs are inserted into endgrain, I was doubtful if they would hold so I glued them in too. And, to be doubly sure, I cross drilled the studs in situ and popped in a nail shank, the end of which is visible on the side of the jig.

Then I cut slots in a small piece of maple to make the endstop and fixed it in place over the studs with washers and nuts.

Here is the modified jig, ready for action.

A worthwhile improvement, I think. It will be possible to match the height of the endstop to the size of the end of the wedge and, should the endstop get damaged, it will be easy to true it up again.

In the meantime, Jeff Peachey has made a much bigger and better device, which is primarily intended for planing thin boards although it can cope with wedges too. There’s photograph of it on his website here.

Richard Nice, who among many other things makes guitars, recently showed me this attractive plane that he had designed for shaping soundboard braces and harmonic bars. He made it from an off-cut of beech and a discarded cutter from a plough plane and, so that there could be no doubt about its provenance, he signed it too.

The screw adjustment is simple but ingenious, depending only on a carefully sited screw tapped into the back of the plane and a slot cut into to the upper end of the iron.

The plane is comfortable to hold and works well. Its narrow cheeks enable it to take shavings from the lowest part of the brace and produce either a triangular or gothic arch section according to your preference.

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