Posted tagged ‘draw knife’

Making masts for Ma Bell

February 21, 2015

Recently I decided that I needed a larger draw knife for chamfering seat planks.  So, I went to Ebay and was surprised to find a significant number of large draw knives (12-14″ blades, 22-24″ overall) that were available and most were in surprisingly good condition.  In the descriptions, most sellers referred to them as “mast makers” draw knives.  At first, that made sense to me.  Certainly, masts, spars and booms were made using draw knives for shaping.  What didn’t make sense was that most of these knives didn’t appear to be old enough to have been around during the “age of sail”.   In several descriptions there were makers marks that gave dates.  One example was “L.I. & J. White, Buffalo, 1837”.  The seller had assumed that 1837 was the date of manufacture when, in fact, 1837 was, more likely, a founding date for the L.I.& J. White company.  Then other tell-tale words popped out in a number of descriptions; “Bell System”, “Western Electric”, “U.S. Army”.  A bell went off in my head (no pun intended).

These days, we tend to forget that the construction of the communications and power delivery systems that we take so much for granted, are, relatively modern phenomena.  The rural electrification system was largely a product of U.S. government efforts to modernize the country’s infrastructure after the Great Depression. It became immediately clear that these “mast maker’s” draw knives were used to make the “masts” that supported the nation’s telegraphic, telephonic and power lines.  They were used to make utility poles and cross-arms.

A 24" (woa) "mast maker's" draw knife

A 24″ (woa) “mast maker’s” draw knife

A "mast maker's" draw knife with a thicknessing gauge bar

A “mast maker’s” draw knife with a thicknessing gauge bar

Today’s utility poles are manufactured with large machinery in centralized plants, then transported to the field.  In earlier times, utility poles were often made from appropriate trees removed when right-of-ways were being cleared.  Many of these “field made” poles are still in place around rural areas across the country.  During WWI and WWII, telegraphic communications were critical.  Where do you string telegraph wire, on poles.  Ergo, “U.S. Army.”

Utility companies and all braches of the Defense Department bought massive amounts of forestry and woodworking equipment and continue to do so.  And, it was always of high quality.  For example, many of us are in possession of bit braces and all-metal Yankee drills that bear the “Bell System” logo.

Kelly provided felling axes to “Ma Bell”.  Stanley was a huge supplier of all sorts of tools for the “utility” trade.  The number of well known, U.S. companies that provided tools to Bell, General Electric, etc. is immense.  Sadly, many of these firms are no longer with us.  They fell victim to the advance of technology.

Broad hatchet with hole for tightening square cross-arm bolts

Broad hatchet with hole for tightening square head cross-arm bolts (Bell System)

So the next time you pay your phone bill, give “Ma Bell” a little nod of thanks and respect.  “She” helped American hand tool manufacturers and continues to provide “unplugged” woodworkers with quality, vintage tools.




Some thoughts on drawknives

August 14, 2013

Like all other hand tools, the drawknife is a simple machine designed to provide the user with an advantage that will; give him (or her) more control, increase his (or her) productivity or shorten the workday.  (Or all three, if you’re lucky.)  Of course, there is the added benefit of being every bit as therapeutic to use as a spokeshave.

Most folks new to working with hand tools may have developed some faulty notions about the drawknife and its use.  Let’s explore this simple, but extraordinarily useful tool and how to get the most out of it.  First, let me throw out a caveat here.  As always, let me state, that is no absolutely right way to use any particular tool.  The way that works best for you, is the “right way”.  That said, there are a few things that you should understand about the drawknife that are, pretty much, accepted as true.

Drawknives are, usually, designed to be used bevel up or bevel down:

To determine if how a drawknife is “handed”, look at how the handles are set in relationship to the work.  The most comfortable working position is with the handles “below” the work.


The knife above is “handed” to be used “bevel up”.  Note that the handles are well below the working surface.  Bevel up knives are usually used for roughing and dimensional stock preparation.  This knife is sporting a set of chamfer guides (Lee Valley Tools).  They’re a great help when roughing things like spindle blanks or running long chamfers on beams (or posts).

Roughing Knives (bevel up) are usually curved in at least one plane, but more often than not they’re curved in two (planes).


Finish Knives (bevel down) usually have flat backs, but are “crowned” on the cutting edge:


Start close to your body and “nibble away” at your work:

The common notion is that the drawknife is used to take long, heavy shavings that pile up around the craftsman and embrace him (or her) in some magical union between man and material.  Well that might be your experience if you’re working with green, riven wood that is absolutely straight grained.  Truth of the matter is that most of us are going to be working with material that is well seasoned (perhaps even kiln dried) and presents grain direction that may “run all over the place”.

When working with seasoned and/or figured material, start close and work away from you, taking short cuts.  This limits the length of the chip to be removed and minimizes “tear out”.  (This process is very similar to slabbing off when hewing a beam.)  When you’re nearly at the desired depth, take a few very light finishes cuts.  This will produce a surface that is true and very highly polished (a huge benefit of the drawknife).


How hard do I have to hold on to this thing?

Think of it this way.  Pretend the handles of the knife are two little birds.  You should hold them in your hands tightly enough that they cannot escape your grasp, but not so tightly that they die of asphyxiation.  Enough said, but remember you may be working with this thing for hours, forearm cramps will ruin your “woodworking adventure” in a heartbeat.  By the way, the handles are designed to give you leverage!


“Flick” the shavings away:

If you’re hitting yourself in the solar plexus with stock that slipped free of the horse, you’re not doing it right.  If you’re “hammering” away with the knife and are fearful that the handles are going to slip off the tangs, you’re not doing it right.

Grasp the handles lightly and low down.  With a high attack angle, position the blade to cut a shaving of the desired length.


With just enough pressure to keep the blade engaged in the cut, LIFT the handles and pull the knife towards you.  Your exit angle should be noticeably lower than your attack.


Skew the knife, whenever possible,

especially when doing finish work.  This creates a lengthened support surface and lowers the effective cutting angle (usually a good thing, but you might need a little different strategy when working with highly figured wood.  Teeny, tiny nibbles?  Maybe).


How should this thing be sharpened?

Everyone has their preferred method.  But mine is to draw file the bevel edge and back, keeping the bevel “flat ground” and the back slightly convex.  Even when used properly, the drawknife’s cutting edge takes a fair amount of punishment.  The convex back allows the user to “flick” shavings, while the flat ground bevel is significantly more durable than one that is hollow ground.  After filing, the bevel and back are honed and stropped.  As with all woodworking tools, the drawknife must be razor sharp, to be effective and produce optimum results.

Oldies are goodies:

Before 1960, every farm in this country had at least one, and in most cases more than one, drawknife.  Every self respecting carpenter had one.  Auto and truck repair shops (when frames had wooden components) had one.  Patternmakers, boatwrights, you name it, anyone working with wood in any way was likely to own a drawknife.  My point is that there are a lot of good drawknives out there.  New drawknifes can be very expensive and I have yet to see one that performs any better than the old American/British pattern knives.  In fact the forging quality of most new knives is not up to the standard of the older ones.  And, the material in the older drawknives seems much more suited for taking and holding an edge than that used in their modern counterparts.  And, remember, the tangs in drawknives are (usually) not hardened, so with a little judicious manipulation, any knife (if its shape if appropriate) can be “handed”.  I do know some folks who keep their handles in a “neutral” position, allowing them to use their knives “up” or “down”.  However, I do not enjoy using their knives.  I’ll leave it at that.

Life is short – enjoy yourself

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