17 November 2009

Man, The Tool Maker

"There is nothing particularly difficult about sailing," my friend John V. mused as we drove across Peconic Bay last weekend into a cold, 20 knot breeze. "But there are an enormous number of simple skills to be mastered."

At that particular moment, I was trying to master the skill of staying warm under the dodger, while John squinted into the wind like the Ancient Mariner, seemingly unaffected by the ferocious wind-chill factor...

Illustration by Gustave Doré 
Wikimedia Commons

Still, I took his point. There were the basic sailing skills, like helmsmanship and sail trimming that you learned as a boy (or girl) in a dink or Sun Fish. Then there were the big boat skills you learned at the knee of your father or uncle, like knot tying, anchoring, docking, putting in a reef without getting blown off the cabin top, and crawling forward to change the headsail the middle of a Wednesday night race.

And when you finally ventured out of your childhood harbor, master of your own little vessel, there were the more serious skills of weather forecasting, coastal piloting, and the granddaddy of them all... celestial navigation.

Use of a marine sextant to measure the altitude of the sun
Wikimedia Commons

And this is forgetting the sailing-domestic skills of getting a hot meal out of a heaving galley, or maneuvering your way into a V-berth without dislocating your hip.

Yes, John was right. Learning to be a proper sailorman (or woman) took longer than getting a Ph.D. in Economics. So what was I doing, effectively doubling my lifetime course load, by opting for the 'double major' of Sailing and Boat Building?

The answer was, of course, enjoying every minute of it...

In the last couple weeks, I'd realized that Boat Building, like Sailing, wasn't a single skill but a whole collection of skills. I hadn't mapped them all out yet, but so far, they seemed to include "Wood Working" (and not the delicate kind), "Tool Buying, Refurbishment, and Sharpening", and even "Tool Making".

In preparation for cutting a rabbet in Cabin Boy's stem I had aquired a couple of beautiful chisels manufactured a long time ago by the Union Hardware Co.

Union Hardware Firmer Chisels
photo by jalmberg

But as I had recently learned from my new friends on the Old Tools online forum, such fine tools should NEVER be struck with a steel hammer. I needed an old fashioned wooden mallet.

So far, I had managed to keep my tool budget within reason by trolling through garage sales and fleaBay. But I was running out of time. I needed to cut my rabbet soon to keep on schedule to finish Cabin Boy by spring.

I kept looking at the hunk of white oak left over from cutting out Cabin Boy's stem... Perhaps there was just enough left to make a wooden mallet?

But, could I really do such a thing?

I found a set of plans for one drawn up by a Brazilian wood worker named Diego de Assis. This seemed fortuitous as Helena is Brazilian. Maybe fate was guiding my hand again...

The plans seemed simple enough, and surprisingly, my now modest collection of old tools seemed sufficient for the job: saw, block plane, ruler, pencil, and an old steel-capped chisel that I could whack with a carpenter's hammer without feeling guilty.

I couldn't think of anything else I'd need... by gum, I would give it a try.

First, I cut the pieces -- the head and handle -- out of my scrap of oak, using my old Buffalo 12" band saw that Helena had found by the side of the road in someone's trash. I'd fixed it and finally figured out how to adjust it's blade (after breaking 3 of them!)

Mallet handle and head, cut from the same piece of white oak as Cabin Boy's stem
photo by jalmberg

I planed the sides of the handle flat with a low-angle block plane. And then took the hard, square edges off with a chisel, testing it every so often until it seemed to fit my hand.

Finally, I used some 120/150/220 grit sand paper to get it really smooth.

Working on the handle
photo by jalmberg

Even more interesting than getting the handle smooth was realizing that I hadn't picked those grades of sandpaper at random, but knew those were the right grades to use after smoothing with the plane and chisel. Wow... who the heck was I becoming???

I shaped and smoothed the mallet head in much the same way, and then faced the really difficult job -- cutting a tapered hole in the head exactly the right size to fit the tapered handle... presumably with a chisel.

Since I'd never cut anything with a chisel before, no less a precisely tapered hole, this was a challenge to my imagination. Such a challenge, that I forgot to take any pictures. However, after a lot of careful cutting and gouging, I ended up with a hole of approximately the right size. The handle fit into the head of the mallet like a hand going into a glove... well, close enough.

Assembled wooden mallet
photo by jalmberg

The result was a stout, oak mallet that made me feel as proud as Thor's apprentice. And I couldn't help but notice Helena's amazed -- I mean, admiring -- looks. Building a software program had never attracted the girls, but building Thor's hammer...

Hey, maybe there were some unexpected benefits to this boat building stuff...

So, now I was a tool maker... amazing. Where would this boat building adventure take me next?

Painting by Mårten Eskil Winge
Wikimedia Commons

>> Next Episode: Micro Inventions
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Thanks for your interest!

-- John

1 comment:

  1. Please ignore my previous comment on one of the first blog posts about tools. You have obviously found out the physical value of tools. Perhaps as importantly, you have found the joy in owning, and creating tools.


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