Bits and pieces

Bits and pieces

I’ve been preparing for social distancing since 1975. My barely-repressed nerd is now coming to the fore. If this is what happens in the first week imagine what I’ll be investigating by the peak? Comparative awl sharpening anyone? I could set up the microscope and look at the scratch marks made by each sharpening medium. In the meantime here’s a post about drill bits. Keep your puns to yourselves…

This is what we’re looking for: a clean hole bored at a slight angle. Most of the others are chipped. Now guess which bit made this hole and see if you’re right.

I probably make more  ⅝” holes in cylindrical bits of wood than all other woodworking joints combined. Given that I’m in the middle of a set of grates for my boat with more than a thousand half laps that’s saying something.

Because of this I’ve put quite a bit of time and testing into drill bits. About ten years ago I bought a forstner bit with a square shank that fits my brace. Brendan Gaffney has written extensively about these and there’s no point repeating it. I was so taken with that bit that I started collecting them with an eye to one day teaching ladderback classes. In ten years I’ve managed to accrue a grand total of… 2.

So a couple of years ago I decided to start testing other bits. Covid-19 has given me the time to apply a veneer of objectivity.

We need a scoring system:

  • Clean, consistent holes: very important. Chipped edges and scratches left by wandering bits are disappointing. If they don’t consistently bore the same diameter hole they’re no use. I’m double weighting this by giving a score for holes at 90° and another at about 80° – roughly the angle of stretchers into back posts.
  • Ease of use: they have to be easy to locate on a cylindrical chair leg, cut without a herculean effort and not stall. If they bind and need to be cleared the score goes down.
  • Speed: I’m measuring this in revolutions, not time. More points – lower time.
  • Cost: I’m including postage. Some of these are hard to find. More points – lower cost.
  • Availability: I thought about making this a binary score or combining it with cost. But I’ll keep it simple.

I use three species of timber most of the time: ash, oak and chestnut. Ash is disappearing from our woodlands but not yet from our timber yards. Oak is a perennial favourite and chestnut, whilst a bit prone to dents, is a great timber for chairs. If you want to know how these bits perform in your favourite species send me a piece and I’ll run the test again.

I bored four holes, 3/4″ deep with each bit in a 1 3/8″ leg blank from each species. I counted the number of revolutions each took and compared the holes. Halfway through I realised that I was using a 9/16″ Jennings bit and did them all again with the 5/8″. Then I did another set at an angle.

All holes are bored with a brace. The bits with a square shank are in an old extension. Those designed for an electric drill are in a Famag extension. None of the bits slipped in the extensions when properly tightened and the Famag extension didn’t slip in the brace.

Let’s meet the contestants.

Spade bit. The cheapest bit here. Lots of people do good work with these but I’ve never seen one used like this..

Centre bit. I threw this in because I happened to have one about the right size. In fact it’s a bit bigger than 5/8”. I had very low expectations on turned parts.

Stanley Powerbore. Jenny Alexander’s favoured bit for green wood. This isn’t green wood and these are really hard to find new. They also have only one cutter so are likely to be slow.

Gedge or Cooke’s pattern auger bit. Designed for end grain but liked by Windsor chair makers because they leave a clean hole. Interesting to sharpen.

Jennings pattern auger bit. Ubiquitous. One of my most used bits. But not for chairmaking.

Forstner bits designed for a brace. Rare, no longer made. I’ve got two so I tested both.

Famag Forstner bit. Excellent in a drill press. Saw tooth edge. I’ve been using these in a brace for a while.

Fisch Wave Forstner bit. Less saw tooth to the edge. Again, excellent in a drill press. I hoped that the wave edge gives some advantage over the saw tooth.

Wood beaver power auger bit. The most aggressive bit here with four cutters.*

Spoon bit. I didn’t even test this bit. I can make it work in flat stock. I’ve practiced with it enough so that it doesn’t wander around the workpiece but I couldn’t get it started anywhere near the mark in round stock. It’s here to say: don’t bother.

There’s one obvious bit missing: the brad point. Lots of chairmakers like these in electric drills. Curtis Buchanon and Pete Galbert both recommend they be used at full speed. Given that I’m using a brace they’re not really relevant. They’re also fiendishly expensive this large so I didn’t put them in the test. That said – if you’re using an electric drill big brad point drill bits are worth getting or grinding yourself.

Many boring hours later I had some surprising results:

Forstner for brace 16321113
Forstner for brace 27341116
Famag forstner8443524
Fisch wave7333521
Wood Beaver*2253517

Not what I was expecting either!

The hole nearest the camera in the first photograph was bored by a centre bit. It was consistently the best. It’s also the easiest to sharpen. However there’s one criterion I didn’t measure – consistent sizes between different bits. I’ve got a couple of centre bits that are roughly 5/8″ but that’s not really good enough. I need to be able to match them, consistently to a tenon former of a caliper on the lathe. Centre bits are all old and whilst very easy to find used aren’t consistent. If you’re working on your own and only need one bit you could do a lot worse than get one of these, keep it sharp and match your tenon former to it. It’ll work well.

But if you want half a dozen bits that are interchangeable and match tenons formed on the lathe then the Famag is the one. The Fisch was disappointing. It didn’t chip out but left a fuzzy edge along the grain. Not terrible but the Famag was better.

The biggest surprise was that the modern power bits were better in a brace than the old bits designed for the purpose. Even if cost wasn’t a factor I would be using the Famag.

It’s worth noting that the Jennings excellent at 90º but with even a small angle it produced a lot of tear out.

Most disappointing was the powerbore. I paid a lot of money both to buy it and get it here. Save your pennies.


*I previously called the Armeg Wood Beaver bit a Wood Owl. I don’t own a 5/8” Wood Owl but I do have one in 1” which I use for drilling dog holes in workbenches. The bit shown here and tested is a 16mm Wood Beaver. Great for drilling fast holes at right angles to flat stock. Not ideal here.



Chair making appeals to a laid-back crowd

Every chair making book I own shows the author sitting on a shaving horse contentedly pulling at a stick with a drawknife. On two of them it’s the cover photo. I’ve spent many happy hours doing the same myself, but a shaving horse takes up quite a bit of space in my little workshop and I rarely use it for anything but chairs. And it is the very definition of rabbit hole workshoppery: making the tool to make the thing. You can spend hours building a museum quality shaving horse before you start building chairs.

My drawknives see a little more action at the bench but they get harder to use the drier the timber so often I find a different tool if I’m not using green, ring-porous wood.

If you’re reading this you probably already have a jack plane and a workbench of some description which means you’ve already got the tools to start building chair parts.

Not needed here

While I was building this chair I tried to use common joiners’ tools before I picked up a specialist item. A couple have found their way into the kit when I felt the outlay was small and the time saving and precision were significant. So here’s the list:

Essential tools

  • Jack plane
  • Chisels: 25mm (1″), 6mm (1/4″)
  • Cross cut saw
  • Rip Saw
  • Tenon Saw
  • Mallet
  • Bevel gauge
  • Combination square
  • Awl
  • Tape measure/folding rule
  • Marking knife
  • Brace/electric drill
  • Bits:
    • 5/8″ nominal
    • 3/4″ nominal
    • 25mm (1″)
  • Bit extensions if your bits are short
  • Tenon rounder 5/8″
  • Spokeshave
  • Marking gauge
  • Craft knife
  • Leather scraps
  • Glue brush
  • Sandpaper
  • 2x quick grip clamps
  • 2x sash clamps or large F clamps
  • Cable staple gun
  • Wire cutters or heavy duty scissors
  • Wallpaper steamer (or other method of making steam)
  • Plastic bag or steam box

Optional but recommended

  • Hold fasts
  • Lump hammer
  • Deadblow mallet
  • Heavily cambered iron for jack plane
  • Concave scraper
  • Greenwood pencil
  • Steam-proof gloves

Most of this is self explanatory but a few things are worth a note:


Old and new

Modern, ‘premium’ spokeshaves have quite long soles. Their metal antecedents did not. My old £5 Record A151 is 19mm from toe to heel. My Veritas is a full 5mm longer. This makes the Veritas easier to use; all of the extra length is ahead of the iron so that it’s easier to register on the workpiece without rocking. It’s a clever design by the manufacturer that makes the learning curve much shorter. Unfortunately it makes all other curves much larger.

About as tight as the A151 will cut on a concave curve

The shorter sole of the old Record (and its Stanley cousins) means that it can create smaller radius curves. This is very helpful when smoothing the concave curve of the back slats on this chair. You could buy a round bottomed spokeshave but it’s another tool to sharpen and store and they are a bit trickier to use. Old (and new) wooden spokeshaves are limited by the size of their irons. Many have longer soles than the 151 and the length is behind the edge.

Bevel gauge

A long blade is essential

One is essential. A second is not a luxury. If you don’t have one already my recommendation is the 10″ Stanley No. 18. It locks with a screw from the bottom that runs through the stock and so sits flat either way around. It also locks solidly. They come in different lengths. For the purposes of chair making get the longest you can find.


20 minutes vs £7.50

To get the posts and stretchers close to round without a lathe a dedicated scraper is an excellent tool. You can buy ‘chair devils’ but it seems like such an extravagance that I never have. For under a tenner you can get a pair of precisely sized spindle scrapers. It’s hard to argue with the price but if you do get them make sure that you grind the corners off or a moment’s inattention will leave you with deep scars in your work. If you have a grinder and a bit of old saw plate or a spare cabinet scraper you can roll your own and get a much more convenient tool. I put a 5/8″ curve on one side and 1 3/8″ on the other flaring out to take a wider piece.

Not an HSE approved technique?


It looks so tame until you fill it up and plug it in.

I’ve used a steam iron, an electric kettle with the switch taped down and several combinations of camping stoves and pans to generate steam but the easiest and safest solution is a wallpaper steamer. At about £40 you might think this is a luxury and I wouldn’t argue but if you don’t already have the makings of a jury-rigged death trap and are planning to buy something this is your best bet. You can still do yourself an enormous amount of damage but you can do it continuously and reliably from a handy flexible hose.

Chair parts cooked to perfection.

To multiply the risk of scalding injuries you can forego the traditional steam box and heat your back posts and slats in a plastic bag. This is a technique used by boat builders to steam planks in place and scales down well for the occasional chair maker. Once you catch the chair making bug you’ll quickly decide to build a box but a thin steam-filled sack of seething heat will cut out one obstacle to bending timber.

It might be time to replace those…

Rather than add to the terror by pressing into service that moth-eaten pair of old leather gloves for handling the scorching hot sticks it is definitely worth investing in a pair of bakers’ steam-proof gloves. Don’t use them for anything else; you don’t want to wear a hole in them. When faced with the collapsing pile of red-hot cling wrap that your steam bag turns into the moment you touch it, these will give you a bit of confidence, if not dexterity.


They pull stuff apart too

Irwin Quick Grip clamps are that very rare thing in woodworking: excellent and cheap. They may not be the most robust clamps or exert the greatest force but they are incredibly useful. I keep three 600mm medium duty clamps on the bench during dry fit and glue up. I only use two but I’ve had the grips pull out on a couple which involves a couple of minutes with a screwdriver to reassemble them. It’s time you can’t afford when the glue is cooling so it’s worth having a spare on hand.

When Quick Grips aren’t strong enough to pull two pieces together you need the mechanical advantage of a screw clamp. I have a few 600mm F clamps that have a deeper reach than bar clamps and can pull even the most recalcitrant ladders into line. They’re particularly helpful on the back slat bending forms.

Tenon Rounder

This is the one specialist tool I would not be without. Even though I have three lathes (I know, I know) and generally turn chair parts to completion on them I still use a tenon former because I’ve matched it with my favourite bit. You could shave all of the tenons to size. Jenny Alexander did it this way and it can work well. But it takes a long time. Still – it’s pleasant work seated at the shaving horse. I prefer to use this tool and then scrape the transition. Here’s the maths: this chair has 24 5/8″ tenons. At £40 for the tool it’s less than £1.70 per tenon for one chair. Build four chairs and it’s under £40p. Your decision.


At most you need three sizes of bit to build a ladder back armchair: 5/8” for the stretchers, 3/4” for the arm tenons into the back posts and 1” for the front posts into the arms. But you can cut out the 3/4” if you’re happy to have a slightly skinny tenon into the back posts, as I did here.

Now you have a choice of bits. Traditionalists might like an auger bit in a brace but you risk the long lead screw coming through the opposite side of the workpiece. My favourite chairmaking bit is the square shanked Forstner bit in a brace but I can’t recommend it because you might wait for years for a 5/8” to come to the market and then you’ll have to sell a kidney. So the choice is really down to modern bits designed for high speed drills.

In an electric drill modern bits guzzle wood as if the worker’s livelihood depended on the industrial production of hamster bedding. But if you’re planning to adapt them for a brace you will find saw toothed Forstner bits rather less impressive than their single cutter ancestors. They’ll work but you might be there a while.

If you’re buying a dedicated bit don’t get it until you’ve tried the tenon former. I find a 5/8″ hole a bit sloppy for my 5/8″ tenons and so use a 15.5mm Forstner bit which is perfect (and more than .3mm smaller than 5/8”!). You can adjust them a hair but they’re finicky. Whichever bit you decide to buy get the long version or buy an extension. More on this later…

The Bodgers’ Anathema

The Bodgers’ Anathema

No lathes were harmed in the making of this chair.

I started this series of blog posts as an article for F&C magazine but by the time I was halfway through it two things had happened: it was more than double the word count for project articles and the editor had moved on! Rather than chop it down I’ve chosen to publish it here so that none of the detail is lost. I’ll be posting weekly as I write up each stage.

Chairmakers’ workshops are full of specialist tools: froes, shavehorses, drawknives and spindle lathes. They’re a lot of fun and worth learning to use if you want to build a lot of chairs. Finding straight, clear, green wood presents another hurdle (sorry) to the prospective bodger. But for the urban woodworker labouring in a cramped workshop without a ready supply of freshly cut ash and with just a few basic woodworking tools there are alternatives. Ladder back, or post and rung, chairs can be built at the joiner’s bench from material available at most decent timber yards. You don’t get to sit down as much and it may take a little longer but the results can be indistinguishable from traditionally made chairs or as different as your imagination allows.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to look at ways to build ladder back chairs using a small tool kit and as few jigs as possible. It’s not the way I learned to build chairs but it may make getting into my second favourite form of woodwork a bit easier (in answer to the obvious question: boats) .

I’m not suggesting that this is the right way, the easiest way, the quickest way or the most enjoyable way. But it is a way that you might be able to start tomorrow without a big outlay.


Finding the straight grain in chestnut

You’re going to need to bend wood if you’re building ladderback chairs and in the absence of green wood the next best thing for steaming is air-dried timber, though the chair made in this series was built entirely from kiln-dried stock. The traditional timbers, ash, oak and chestnut, all work well but more important than species are straight grain and lack of knots. Given that you’re not going to be splitting the timber your choice is wider than that of traditional chair makers. A straight, clear board of English cherry is an enticing prospect. You don’t see many cherry chairs on this side of the pond. Walnut, a diffuse porous timber not readily given to convenient splitting, also makes a striking chair.

Ladder backs are more tolerant of dry wood than some of their Windsor cousins. Gentle sweeps in the back posts rather than the tight curves of a sack back chair will make your bends easier, require less kit and be less prone to failure.

The project begins at the timber yard. Find one that will let you look through the boards available and choose the straightest, clearest piece of hardwood you can find. I have had a lot of success bending force dried timber and once managed to get a curved stem for a canoe out of a piece of kiln dried Western Red Cedar with nothing more than a towel and a steam iron,  but not without a few breakages. Find a timber yard that processes its own boards from log to plank and ask to pick out a stick before it gets to the kiln.

The natural curves of the plank offer themselves to the back posts but then how do you round them?

When selecting a board don’t focus exclusively on how straight the grain is on the face but also look at the edge. If there’s more than an annular ring of runout per inch keep looking. There’s a decent board in there somewhere.

Keep it as long as you can for as long as you can. It’s tempting to cut down a long board to get it into the back of your car but if logistics allow don’t cross cut it until you’ve got it back to the ‘shop and can plan your posts, rungs and slats around the shakes and small knots in the board. It’s worth taking your chair stick with you if you’ve already made one. More on this later…

I’m using Chestnut for this chair. It looks a lot like oak but without the medullary rays or cats paws. There’s very little sap wood on a board, the grain is similar to oak and works a little easier. I prefer working it to dry ash but it’s quite a bit softer and it’s easy to put dents in. I spent some time steaming a few out. I got most of the chair out of one board 1800x400x42mm. You could do it from less; I was working around some knots. It wasn’t the most efficient way to work. Ideally I’d have bought one board at 42mm for the posts and another at 32 for the stretchers. If you can get a thick board and resaw it for the all of the slats it makes a lovely pattern. Here I settled for two and two.

Next week Tools and Jigs


Compass planes

Compass planes

I’ve been testing curves for back slats recently. That’s meant a lot of time with my compass plane making bending forms. That plane is a chatterbox. It’s in its nature. There are so many light, movable parts only partially attached to each other that it’s a wonder the thing can stay quiet at all.

Roughing in the curve with spokeshaves

Most plane makers go to great lengths to make their tools out of heavy, solid lumps of stuff. It keeps the chatter to a minimum. Compass planes are not built the same way.

The handles on my straight spokeshave show a lot more wear than on the round-bottomed tool. You can get quite a lot of curve before you need the curved sole.
Cambered iron

But there are things you can do. Starting with low expectations helps!

I used to think of my Record 020 as a jack plane. I expected it to do a lot of work quite quickly and give me a decent result. These days I see it more like a jointer plane. I use it for the last few shavings to get the final shape. The curve comes from a bandsaw, jigsaw or bowsaw followed by spokeshaves. They are my jack planes for curves.

As with all edge tools start with the sharpest iron you can hone. It won’t solve everything but at least you’ll know that’s not one of the issues. Grind and hone it like a jointer plane iron – with a small camber. Rather than trying to take a full width shaving I work the high spots and check for square frequently. I don’t expect to get beautiful long ribbons from end to end. Given that we’re making a curve the grain direction will change at some point and these things don’t go up hill!

The mouth and bed aren’t flush. Not ideal but it works.

If you’ve got a sharp, cambered iron, lightly set, you’re cutting downhill and you’re still getting chatter there are a couple of things worth investigating. The mouth of the plane is a magnet for resin. It builds up and needs to be scraped out. There’s little you can do about the step between the mouth and the frog. The frog has no fore and aft adjustment. I’ve tried shimming it with mylar and sheets of tin foil. Not worth the effort. Make sure that the cap iron fits well and the lever cap is tight.

With the mouth clean have a look at the peened pins that hold the frog to the sole. With the sole set for a concave curve these can stick out and catch. You won’t notice it when planing but it can’t help the chatter. You can sand the sole much as you might lap a smoothing plane. I didn’t notice a lot of difference but it can’t hurt.

And finally, with the plane perfectly set up a squiggle of wax on that rather rough sole makes the world of difference.

Not the most satisfying shavings but it’s the curve we’re interested in