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At the Easter Instrument Making Course at West Dean this year, I had the pleasure of meeting Wouter Hilhorst, who was making a viola. Apart from admiring the precision and delicacy of his work, I was also interested to see that he had made his own planes, 2 of which were in the Japanese style. He let me take a quick photograph – see below.

We’ve recently had an email correspondence and he’s sent me some better photographs, and some details of how he made them. He gets the blades from the German company, Dick, and recommends their Japanese blades writing:

They are laminated and can be honed to a very sharp edge. As you probably know, blades for larger Japanese planes taper in thickness and wedge themselves in the more or less resilient oak plane bodies, which works surprisingly well. The small blades from Dick aren’t tapered in thickness, but only slightly in width. When I made them I thought I would wedge them widthwise, but the little recesses which grip the blade on both sides are enough, just by friction (although I had to glue two little strips of paper in the recesses of the smaller plane). The blade needs some space widthwise to be adjusted laterally.

He makes the planes from European oak or boxwood and chisels them out of a solid block. This is a technique that I intend to re-visit. All the planes that I’ve made recently followed the Krenov method in which you start by sawing two slices off the block to make the sides of the plane, shape the bed and throat from the middle section, and then glue it back together. There are some photographs of this method of construction here and here.



At the beginning of March I posted a few photographs of dovetail joints that, at first sight, look impossible to put together, let alone take apart. As I said then, there’s no real trick to them; it’s just that the assumptions one makes about the parts of the joint hidden to the eye turn out to be wrong.

Here’s the double dovetail disassembled:




And here is the triple dovetail:



Ingenious and amusing, but rather short on practical applications.

While on the subject of the apparently impossible, here’s another teasing puzzle that woodworkers can make to annoy their friends. It consists of 3 pieces: a cylinder, a symmetrical double cone and an inclined plane.

Surprisingly, placed together like this, there is no movement in either cylinder or cone. Wouldn’t you expect them to roll down the inclined plane?

The cylinder does, of course, roll down the plane but to take the photograph, I’ve used a ruler as a chock to prevent this happening.

The cone, on the other hand, has an inexplicable tendency to roll up hill. Once again, I’ve used a ruler as a chock to prevent it doing so.

These still photographs don’t really convey the anti-gravity properties of the double cone. For a more convincing demonstration, have a look at this video on YouTube.

Or, in case the link doesn’t work, paste this url into your browser: http://www.youtube.com/finelystrung#p/a/u/0/g7dCCskRMUg

As you can see, I’m working on a cello at the moment. But I’ve written about cello making before and, rather than repeat myself, I thought that I’d show a few wooden constructions that have amused me recently.

First, an old favourite – but one that people who don’t know the secret find seriously puzzling – the captive screw. There a trick to its manufacture, of course, and, if you can’t work out how it’s done, this YouTube video explains.

Rather more sophisticated is this apparently impossible double dovetail. There’s no trick here and the joint comes apart with ease. It’s just that the geometry of the joinery isn’t what one assumes it to be at first sight. The joint is occasionally useful. Roy Underhill describes an application in his book, The Woodwright’s Guide (ISBN978-0-8078-5914-8), where it’s employed to join the front legs to the top of a work bench.

The triple dovetail below is an ingenious puzzle that I found in Edwin Wyatt’s book, Wonders in Wood (ISBN 0-941936-40-6). Wyatt says that it was invented by someone called A B Cutler and published in a magazine, Industrial Arts and Vocational Education in 1930. It has no practical application as far as I know. The geometry of the joint is a variation on that of the double dovetail but it’s rather harder to make. Again, despite all appearances, the two pieces come apart easily – as you can see if you compare the positions of the ebony dots in the two photographs.

In a future post, I’ll show some photographs of the joints pulled apart.

All that remains at this stage is to cut the inner and outer circles to make the annulus of the rosette. I start by drilling a hole in the centre of the work piece…

… and then use a Dremmel mounted in a shop-made jig to cut the circles. (More details of the jig are available in the ‘Tools and Jigs’ section of this site.)

Here are the two rosettes that I’ve talked about in early posts in this series cut out.

And here are a few more. Going clockwise from top left, they’re made of English yew, laburnum, spalted beech, spalted crab apple and mulberry burr.

It’s probably best to leave them attached to their base until you’re ready to install them on the soundboard but, as you can see from the two rosettes at the bottom, I don’t always heed my own advice.

The rosette below is made from laburnum, arranged to show the striking contrast between the light coloured sapwood and the dark heartwood. It’s rather more complicated to make than the spalted beech rosette shown in the previous post and a fair degree of accuracy is needed throughout.

The starting point is a small piece of laburnum. This one has been air drying for a couple of years and I reckon that it should be pretty stable by now. I’ve scraped off the wax that covered the endgrain while it was drying.

The first step is to decide how many individual sector shaped pieces to use to complete the circle. I’m planning to use 20 for this rosette, which means that the sides of the billet must be planed to converge at an angle of 18°. That’s hard to manage on the bench top and it’s worth making a cradle to hold the wood while you plane it to size and shape. Go slowly and carefully because it’s important not only that the angle is right but that there’s no taper along the length of the piece. In addition, the width must be right so that the line between the sap wood and the heart wood ends up where you want it to be in the finished rosette.

Having planed the wood to a near perfect prism, it’s sliced on the bandsaw.

The pieces are numbered as they come off, so that they can be put together again in consecutive order.

Here the rosette is being assembled ‘dry’.

It may be necessary to make some fine adjustments with a shooting board and a block plane.

Here, the first piece is being glued and clamped into position on its plywood base. The base has been marked out in pencil to aid positioning of the individual pieces.

As the pieces are glued into place, the rosette nears completion.

Cleaned up and levelled with a finely set block plane.

Last July I wrote a couple of posts about making a guitar rosette from spalted beech. But I missed the opportunity to photograph some of the details of its construction and, since I’ve been making some similar rosettes recently, I thought it might be useful if I had a second attempt at explaining the method.

For reasons that I’ve discussed before, I like the visual effect of rosettes made by inlaying wood with contrasting colours or a striking figure and often use this technique when making guitars.

These rosettes are made from at least 2, and usually many more, individual pieces and I’ve found that it’s much easier to assemble them accurately on a base of thin birch plywood (0.4mm or 0.6mm thick*) than it is to inlay them directly on the soundboard. Because the plywood is so thin, it too needs a stable base during the assembly process. But, of course, it must be possible to remove this base when assembly is complete. I start with a square of 6mm MDF, a similarly sized sheet of clean paper and the square of  plywood that will be the permanent base of the rosette.

One surface of the square of MDF is given a thin coat of hot hide glue.

The sheet of paper is then smoothed down…

…before adding a second coat of glue…

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and the layer of plywood.

The whole thing is then clamped up in a nipping press and left to dry overnight.

If you don’t have a press, a flat board and a weight work just as well.

The point of the paper and the hot hide glue is that, after it has been assembled, the rosette is easy to detach from the MDF base. In another post, I’ll show the next stages of the process.

*This sort of plywood is used by model makers and, at least in the UK, is easily available from the sort of shops that supply materials for people who build model aeroplanes.

Another useful aid to cutting dovetails is a dovetail marker. Several different designs are available to buy but I like this shop-made one best. Once again, it comes from Robert Wearing’s book, The Resourceful Woodworker (ISBN 0 7134 8006 8), and is fairly easily made from a sheet of brass 1 to 2 mm thick. Its advantage over the type that Lie-Nielsen and Veritas make is that you only have to set out the centre position of the pins on the edge of the board. The triangular ‘window’ of the marker then lets you see exactly where you’re marking out the joint. It works equally well whether you prefer to cut the pins or the tails first – an argument that I don’t intend to get into.

I suppose purists who like to use a steeper slope for dovetails in softwood would need two markers, one at a 1 in 6 slope and one at 1 in 8. I confess that I never bother about this, cutting all dovetails at 1 in 8, regardless of what sort of wood I’m working with.




I’ve been making a few small wooden boxes to give as Christmas presents. They don’t really have much practical function, except as a place to keep pencils or stamps or other odds and ends, but they’re fun to make and people seem to like them. Part of the pleasure of constructing them comes from the small scale of the project. It’s a day’s work rather than a month for a guitar or a violin. And they allow you use up scraps of wood that were too nice to burn but that are too small to make much else out of. They also provide an opportunity to show off a bit, which brings me to the reason for writing this post.

Even people who know nothing about woodwork and cabinetry have heard about dovetails and recognise them as an emblem of craftsmanship in wood. So that’s the method of construction you should use if you want your skill to be noticed.

If you’re going to cut dovetails, it’s much easier if you’ve got a proper vice. Because of the position of the screw and slide bars in most bench vices, it’s only possible to grip the edge of the board that you’re dovetailing. A dovetailing vice, on the other hand, grips the whole work piece, preventing it vibrating and aiding accurate sawing. They are especially valuable for wide boards but they’re good for smaller pieces too. The idea came from Robert Wearing’s book, The Resourceful Woodworker, (ISBN 0 7134 8006 8). He uses threaded metal bars to provide the clamping force but I cannibalised the wooden handscrews from an old clamp that I picked up in a second hand tool shop. The vice is simply cramped to the top of the bench when needed.

I left the screws much longer than necessary for any dovetailing so that the vice would open wide enough to accommodate the body of a guitar when working on the tail stripe.

And, should you be wondering how the boxes turned out, here are a few photographs:


A while ago, a friend bought himself a lap steel guitar – the sort with a hollow neck, square in section – but became frustrated because he couldn’t find a capo that would fit it. He couldn’t use the usual type of capo, of course, because the hollow neck of the guitar was too thick and too fragile to allow the clamp to work and because the strings were too high over the fingerboard. So I made him this device, which is easy to fit and adjust and works well.

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In case anyone else has a similar problem, I thought it might be worth explaining how it’s made. You’ll need a scrap of hardwood roughly 2.5 x 1 x 3/8 inches in size; a piece of bone or ebony to make the inverted nut; some cork or leather to damp the strings on the headstock side of the capo; a 2.5 inch length of round bar in brass or steel of 1/4 inch diameter; a short length of threaded rod of 1/8 inch diameter; and a small piece of wood or metal or plastic to make a knob with which to turn the threaded rod. You’ll also require a matching tap to cut a thread in the hole of the brass bar.

The photographs below should make the construction clear, so I’m not going to give details. If you have any queries, please email me at info@finelystrung.com. The only thing to watch out for is that the threaded rod that pulls the bar against the underside of the strings shouldn’t be too long or it may damage the fingerboard.

To fit the capo, loosen the screw holding the metal bar – but not so far that the bar becomes detached. Hold the capo with its long axis parallel to the strings and insert the bar between the two middle strings. Then rotate both the capo and the bar through 90 degrees, making sure that the nut side of the capo is orientated to face the bridge. Slide the capo to the desired position and screw it up just tightly enough to produce a clear sound from all the strings.

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Last week I made a bridge for the guitar that I’m building at the moment. Here’s a photograph taken while it was being French polished. It’s in Rio rosewood and the tie block is inlaid with a strip of spalted beech to echo the rosette that I wrote about a little while ago.

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To cut the channel for the saddle and for the recess behind the tie block, I used this very simple router table. The idea came from an article in Fine Woodworking (No 182, February 2006) where Doug Stowe described how he made something rather similar for a full size router. There’s a brief description of his table here where there’s also a link to a full explanation and downloadable free plans.

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In my table, the Dremmel is mounted overhead on a cantilever. The table itself is a board of mdf. The adjustable fence is simply a straight strip of wood that pivots at one end and that is clamped at the other – an arrangement that allows a remarkable degree of precision. Depth of cut is controlled by the position of the router bit in the collet. The Dremmel isn’t powerful enough to cut slots to their full depth in one pass so, to avoid the fiddly business of repeatedly having to change the position of the router bit in its collet, I place a shim of 1.5mm thick plywood under the workpiece for each subsequent pass.

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The only bit about making the table that’s not straightforward is how to mount the Dremmel firmly and vertically in the cantilever in a way that allows removal. I solved the problem by buying a 3/4 inch diameter 12tpi tap, which matches the thread on the nose of the Dremel when the collar above the collet is removed. Then it was only a matter of drilling an undersized hole and tapping it out.

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The table is quick and easy to set up and it doesn’t take up much room in the cupboard when it’s not being used. It isn’t big enough to deal with anything very large, of course, but for making guitar bridges it works fine.

In Roy Courtnall’s book, Making Master Guitars, there’s an interview with José Romanillos in which he talked about some of techniques he uses. To attach the ribs to the foot of the neck, he prefers a wedged joint over the usual 2mm wide slot cut at the 12th fret line. Apparently, he got the idea from seeing such a joint in a 17th or 18th century French guitar. He gives some rudimentary instructions about how to make it:

‘You cut a wide tapering slot, then fit the rib tight up against the front end. Then you drive a wedge down, which matches the taper exactly. It is very strong.’

Well, I haven’t had any problems with strength of the joint when the ribs are housed in conventional narrow slots. But I’ve never found it easy to cut these slots to exactly the right width with a hand saw. If you want to do it with a single cut, you need to adjust the set of a back saw so that it cuts a kerf 2mm wide. Quite apart from the fact that it’s hard to do this without breaking the teeth, it makes the saw almost useless for any other purpose. The alternative is to do it by making two cuts. After the first cut, you can place a piece of plastic or plywood in the kerf to guide the saw for the second cut. But it’s not a very satisfactory solution because it’s too easy to cut into the plastic or wood and end up with a slot that’s too narrow near the bottom. You can get around that problem by substituting a sheet of metal, such as a cabinet scraper, but it doesn’t do the saw much good. Things get even more difficult if you want the slot to be 2.5 or 3.0mm wide to accommodate laminated ribs.

So I was interested to learn about Romanillos’ wedge technique and decided to try it out in the guitar that I’m making at the moment, which does have laminated ribs – zebrano lined with maple with a finished thickness of about 3mm.

The 2 photographs below show the wide tapering slots cut and chiselled out in the foot of the neck before the heel has been shaped.

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Here, I’ve roughly shaped the heel and lower part of the neck.

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Then I cut the wedges and adjusted them to fit. Obviously, it’s particularly important that they draw everything up tight before the narrow end of the wedge reaches the soundboard end of the slot. I deliberately made them too long initially to give plenty of room for error.

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This is a dry run before gluing to make sure that everything fits perfectly. I discovered that another advantage of making the wedges too long at the beginning was that it provided something to grip when wriggling them out.

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And this is the finished joint, glued and cleaned up. As you can see, I’ve already started attaching the ribs to the soundboard with tentellones.

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Altogether, this turned out to be a useful experiment. The wide slot presented no problems to saw or chisel out. Indeed, it was significantly easier than cutting the conventional narrow slot. There’s a bit of extra time and trouble preparing the wedges but, as long as you have the right jig (see here) it’s not difficult. Gluing up was easy: plenty of room to coat all the surfaces before putting them together and sliding in the wedge. A couple of taps with a light hammer and it’s done. I’m fairly sure that I shall be using this technique again.

A while ago, I wrote about using a Millers Falls scraper plane to cope with some highly figured cocobolo that I was using for the back of a guitar. It’s an excellent tool for finalising the thickness and it leaves a clean finish even on the most awkward wood. The disadvantage however, is that it takes only the thinnest of shavings so if you’re starting with wood that’s way too thick, you’re in for a lot of time and effort to get to the right final dimensions.

Of course, the usual way to get around the problem is to run the wood through a drum sander. But I haven’t got one, partly because there isn’t room for it in my small workshop and partly because I’m allergic to sandpaper. I don’t mean it literally – I don’t come out in a rash if I touch the stuff – but I do think that there are nicer and quieter ways of shaping wood than grinding it into dust.

Another solution is to use a plane with a toothed blade. This won’t eliminate tear out completely but, should it happen, it’s limited and shallow and can easily be dealt with by a scraper later. Toothed blades work because the individual teeth are too small to grab enough fibres running in the wrong direction to rip out a large lump.

I use a No 4 Record bench plane fitted with a standard blade that I modified to look like this. Put the blade in the vice, cutting edge upward. Take a cold chisel and, against all your instincts, hammer a small gap into the cutting edge every 3 or 4 mm. Then sharpen the blade in the usual way.

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Another way of cutting the teeth is to use a thin grinding wheel in a Dremmel.

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Here are a couple of pictures of a guitar back in zebrano being thicknessed with the toothed blade. If you’ve ever used this wood, you’ll know that the interlocked grain structure makes it very hard to work. With a toothed blade and a wipe of wax on the bottom of the plane, the task becomes a pleasure.

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The marks left by the toothed blade are just visible running diagonally from bottom right to top left. And you can see the linguine-like shavings that are produced.

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Switching over to the scraper plane for final adjustment of the thickness and to remove the corrugations left by the toothed blade.

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Last week in The Times, there was article about recipes in verse. The author reckoned that rhyming recipes were once common, which he attributed to the need for a way of memorising ingredients and cooking directions in the days when few cooks could read or write. He also quoted some modern verse about cooking, including this piece below.

Risotto by Mary Woodward

I’d work from recipes, measure carefully, hover
anxiously. Be so bored by the craft and science
I’d then lose all interest in eating it.
So I cooked risotto every night for a month,
made it instinctive, natural, a simple habit,
as if I’d grown up in a red tiled Italian town
where emerald basil sprouts wildly in the gutters.

Rice, onion, garlic abandoned into hot butter
without a thought. Pepper. Bubbling white wine.
Stock, slipping from a jug, uncalculated.
Dared break the cardinal rule never to leave it.
Judged by eye. Knew by the soft heaving gloss
when to let saffron or prawns or asparagus
fall from my heedless hands. Got it so perfect
I can start from scratch, soon be piling plates,
like breathing, like walking, like humming Puccini,
as if another woman, olive eyed, laughing
like Sunday church bells all the while, has done it.

I thought that this hit a nail on the head. The best way to cook good food isn’t by following instructions in a recipe book. It’s better to absorb the rhythm of the recipe, know what you are aiming for and just do it. Of course, you also need a repertoire of techniques that by practice have become second nature. These techniques aren’t difficult or complicated but having them in your head – as opposed to reading them as you go along – makes all the difference. So, as Mary Woodward says, the way to end up with a good risotto is to make ten – and throw the first nine away.

Just like woodwork really. Cut a set of dovetails every day for a month and then you’ll be able to make a decent drawer. I highly recommend it as an approach. Because you’re not actually making anything, not working on a real project, mistakes don’t matter. Indeed, they’re to be welcomed as a way of learning what not to do. And it’s satisfying because you get better so quickly.

Here are some of my practice pieces. Most of them aren’t very good and a couple are really poor. But it’s instructive to see how strong the joint is, even when made badly. I’ve kept them because small right-angled brackets often come in handy: glueing up mitred frames or boxes with mitred corner joints, for example; or holding the bottom block of a guitar vertical while glueing it to the soundboard.

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Although my technique still needed improving, I’d learnt enough about cutting dovetails to be able to enjoy making these drawers for a cabinet in English elm.

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Talking of improvement, there’s an interesting article on Konrad Sauer’s blog about how, after making a stack of drawers for his kitchen, he reached the point where his dovetails fitted straight from the saw. As a famous golfer once remarked, ‘The more I practise, the luckier I get’.

Browsing through the surprisingly detailed statistics that WordPress provides for bloggers, I was intrigued to see that some of my most popular posts were about the workshop construction of small finger planes with curved soles for violin and cello making. If you’re interested and want to find them, go to the bottom of the page and type plane into the seach box. Or click here, here and here. There’s also a short entry about them on the tools and jigs page.

For a slightly different approach, it’s worth taking a look at Alan Dunwell’s website. You’ll need to go to the Luthier pages and select Making finger planes. He shows how to make several of these planes in a single batch, shaping different profiles for the soles on a belt sander. Dunwell recommends nothing fancier than a penny nail for the crossbar that holds the wedge and blade in position.

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