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March 23, 2010

I was a carpenter and architectural woodworker in Northern California for 12 years before sidestepping into a related writing, photography, and editing career in 1988. I’ve also been swinging a hammer between keystrokes lately to help make ends meet. After all, when media work gets scarce, there’s always a fence to mend, a wall that needs a window, a door that doesn’t “click.”

 

It never fails that, as I perform my rituals to prepare for carpentry, such as sharpening plane irons and lubing gears, I see tools as something more than merely form following function. If only for a moment, I see art, animated by timeless design, world geography, and memories—every bit as riveting as the architecture and furnishings it helps to create. I envision, at the very least, photos of these and other tools populating dwellings, coffee shops, and boardrooms, not to mention The Museum of Modern Art. Here’s a glimpse of some of my photogenic favorites.

The oldest scientific artifact inside the Caltech Archives in Pasadena, California, is an Egyptian plumb bob that’s estimated to be 2,500 to 3,500 years old. It’s made of an igneous rock called diorite with a bronze ring attached. My contemporary Stanley
The oldest scientific artifact inside the Caltech Archives in Pasadena, California, is an Egyptian plumb bob that’s estimated to be 2,500 to 3,500 years old. It’s made of an igneous rock called diorite with a bronze ring attached. My contemporary Stanley 16-ounce plumb bob is solid brass with a replaceable hardened-steel tip. Basically a pointed weight on a string that uses gravity to establish or confirm true vertical, its high density and sleek figure help it summarily dismiss the wind.
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1 / 27
The best carpentry levels, including this spirit-and-electronic hybrid, are made by Stabila Messgeräte in Annweiler am Trifels, Germany, which is located on the enchanting Southern Wine Route. Stabila’s factory is less than a mile from Trifels Castle, whe
The best carpentry levels, including this spirit-and-electronic hybrid, are made by Stabila Messgeräte in Annweiler am Trifels, Germany, which is located on the enchanting Southern Wine Route. Stabila’s factory is less than a mile from Trifels Castle, where the English King Richard the Lionheart was reputedly held hostage in 1193 and 1194.
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2 / 27
 The oldest wood-cased pencil in captivity happens to be a carpenter pencil. It was discovered during the renovation of a 17th-century German house and now lives in the Faber-Castell archives in Nuremberg, Germany. Modern carpenter pencils—a common promot
The oldest wood-cased pencil in captivity happens to be a carpenter pencil. It was discovered during the renovation of a 17th-century German house and now lives in the Faber-Castell archives in Nuremberg, Germany. Modern carpenter pencils—a common promotional freebie at lumberyards and trade shows—are strikingly similar. The pencils are stronger than standard hexagonal ones, don't roll or easily blow away, and have a rectangular lead that can be sharpened with a utility knife to a durable chisel point.
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3 / 27
Stanley’s ergonomic No. 199 cast-aluminum utility knife, complete with fleur-de-lis, was introduced in 1936 for cutting fiberboard. It’s still the most popular knife for ripping drywall panels.
Stanley’s ergonomic No. 199 cast-aluminum utility knife, complete with fleur-de-lis, was introduced in 1936 for cutting fiberboard. It’s still the most popular knife for ripping drywall panels.
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4 / 27
Folding or zigzag rules were indispensable to American carpenters and woodworkers right up until self-retracting pocket tapes measured up in the mid 20th century. Some of us still use 6-foot folding extension rules, which add a sliding 6-inch extension fo
Folding or zigzag rules were indispensable to American carpenters and woodworkers right up until self-retracting pocket tapes measured up in the mid 20th century. Some of us still use 6-foot folding extension rules, which add a sliding 6-inch extension for taking inside measurements where absolute precision is required. I bought this hard-maple Lufkin Red End rule in the 1980s, and it’s still in the Lufkin catalog.
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5 / 27
The resin-impregnated poplar stock isn’t what makes this Canadian-made Veritas sliding bevel special. It’s the ingenious cast-silicon-bronze cam lock that tucks flush with the stock so it never interferes when gauging angles as some locking mechanisms do.
The resin-impregnated poplar stock isn’t what makes this Canadian-made Veritas sliding bevel special. It’s the ingenious cast-silicon-bronze cam lock that tucks flush with the stock so it never interferes when gauging angles as some locking mechanisms do.
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6 / 27
The rafter square—the original carpenters’ calculator—is so complex that H. H. Siegel copyrighted a 47-chapter instructional book about it (titled The Steel Square) in 1957. My contemporary Stanley No. 45-011 aluminum rafter square is shown equipped with
The rafter square—the original carpenters’ calculator—is so complex that H. H. Siegel copyrighted a 47-chapter instructional book about it (titled The Steel Square) in 1957. My contemporary Stanley No. 45-011 aluminum rafter square is shown equipped with Starrett’s classic No. 111 stair gauges, which make it easy to lay out repetitive angles. The faint eagle emblem inscribed on the square’s heel pays tribute to the legendary Eagle Square Manufacturing Company of South Shaftsbury, Vermont, which was officially founded during the 1840s, acquired by Stanley Rule & Level in 1916, and closed in 2002. Bernstein Display now inhabits the building, where it makes mannequins.
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7 / 27
I bought this popular General No. 843-1 pencil compass and scriber at a hardware store decades ago for bisecting angles, drawing circles, and scribing trim to fit against irregular surfaces (bending the pin out slightly for easier scribing). You can still
I bought this popular General No. 843-1 pencil compass and scriber at a hardware store decades ago for bisecting angles, drawing circles, and scribing trim to fit against irregular surfaces (bending the pin out slightly for easier scribing). You can still buy an identical new one for just $3.50.
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8 / 27
Thanks to its innovative Gravity-Rise stand, a carpenter can take this new Bosch Worksite table saw for a walk, then almost effortlessly raise it into the upright position. The stand was designed by Bosch engineers in Mount Prospect, Illinois.
Thanks to its innovative Gravity-Rise stand, a carpenter can take this new Bosch Worksite table saw for a walk, then almost effortlessly raise it into the upright position. The stand was designed by Bosch engineers in Mount Prospect, Illinois.
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9 / 27
Western handsaws cut on the push stroke alone or on the push and the pull. The steel blade has to be thick and springy enough to endure that without buckling. Traditional Japanese handsaws cut on the pull stroke only, and are therefore made of thin, hard,
Western handsaws cut on the push stroke alone or on the push and the pull. The steel blade has to be thick and springy enough to endure that without buckling. Traditional Japanese handsaws cut on the pull stroke only, and are therefore made of thin, hard, and brittle high-carbon steel that holds a razor edge and cuts a smooth, narrow kerf for minimal waste. This handmade Japanese dōzuki-nokogiri saw has a decorative rattan-wrapped wood handle.
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10 / 27
Although I bought this crosscut saw and convex flooring saw new in the early 1980s, I consider them souvenirs from the Industrial Revolution. They were made in Sheffield, England, by W. Tyzack Sons & Turner Ltd, which was established in the 19th century t
Although I bought this crosscut saw and convex flooring saw new in the early 1980s, I consider them souvenirs from the Industrial Revolution. They were made in Sheffield, England, by W. Tyzack Sons & Turner Ltd, which was established in the 19th century to make scythes, harrow discs, files, and other steely merchandise. The company dispersed into the corporate ether in the late 1980s.
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11 / 27
I admire the aluminum truss that supports the cutting head on my Makita 12-inch sliding compound-miter saw, which was designed in Japan and assembled in Buford, Georgia. It reminds me of cantilever bridges such as Canada’s Pont de Québec (the world’s long
I admire the aluminum truss that supports the cutting head on my Makita 12-inch sliding compound-miter saw, which was designed in Japan and assembled in Buford, Georgia. It reminds me of cantilever bridges such as Canada’s Pont de Québec (the world’s longest cantilever span) and New York’s Tappan Zee.
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12 / 27
Made in Rotherham, England, this Stanley No. 92 shoulder/chisel plane was a meaningful going-away present in 1992 from John Lively, the inimitable publisher of Fine Homebuilding magazine.
Made in Rotherham, England, this Stanley No. 92 shoulder/chisel plane was a meaningful going-away present in 1992 from John Lively, the inimitable publisher of Fine Homebuilding magazine.
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13 / 27
This white-oak sori-dai-kanna compass plane from Japan and cast-iron Kunz 100 pocket plane from Germany look like a score from the FAO Schwarz toy store in Manhattan, but they’re actually razor-sharp tools for delicate woodworking.
This white-oak sori-dai-kanna compass plane from Japan and cast-iron Kunz 100 pocket plane from Germany look like a score from the FAO Schwarz toy store in Manhattan, but they’re actually razor-sharp tools for delicate woodworking.
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14 / 27
Made by E.C. Emmerich in Remscheid, Germany, this Primus Improved Smoothing Plane is yet another tool that I bought almost 30 years ago and could replace with an identical new one today. The sole is a waxy tropical hardwood called lignum vitae, which is s
Made by E.C. Emmerich in Remscheid, Germany, this Primus Improved Smoothing Plane is yet another tool that I bought almost 30 years ago and could replace with an identical new one today. The sole is a waxy tropical hardwood called lignum vitae, which is so tough that it has been used for pulleys and machine bearings.
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15 / 27
I once had the privilege of putting the deck on a westernized Japanese house in Tiburon, California, built by Len Brackett, who had completed a five-year temple-carpenter apprenticeship in Japan and is the head of East Wind Inc. This Sakura Fubuki brand J
I once had the privilege of putting the deck on a westernized Japanese house in Tiburon, California, built by Len Brackett, who had completed a five-year temple-carpenter apprenticeship in Japan and is the head of East Wind Inc. This Sakura Fubuki brand Japanese hira-kanna plane, which is pulled rather than pushed, helped put a silky finish on the Port Orford cedar deck posts. Sakura fubuki means “cherry blossom blizzard,” which is depicted on the plane iron.
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16 / 27
Under the hood of this vintage 1982 Inca planer/jointer—which can reduce the rowdiest lumber to the desired thickness while imparting a flawless finish—is a constellation of planetary gears and sprockets that synchronize via belt and chain to propel wood
Under the hood of this vintage 1982 Inca planer/jointer—which can reduce the rowdiest lumber to the desired thickness while imparting a flawless finish—is a constellation of planetary gears and sprockets that synchronize via belt and chain to propel wood through. The innovative aluminum-bodied machine was built in the same Injecta AG factory in Teufenthal, Switzerland, that now performs aluminum and zinc die-casting and other deluxe services for distinguished customers such as Hansgrohe, Audi, and Triumph.
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17 / 27
I have often carried a four-in-hand rasp and file in my tool belt for fine-tuning finish work, but this Nicholson milled-tooth file from Mexico works better and is a thing of beauty. Originally developed for working auto-body panels and aluminum, it has s
I have often carried a four-in-hand rasp and file in my tool belt for fine-tuning finish work, but this Nicholson milled-tooth file from Mexico works better and is a thing of beauty. Originally developed for working auto-body panels and aluminum, it has sharp curved teeth that take a speedy and clean shearing cut.
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18 / 27
19 / 27
This arboreal high-speed-steel Irwin Unibit step drill does the work of a dozen twist drills for boring, enlarging, and deburring holes in sheet metal, stainless steel, copper, brass, aluminum, plastic, and other thin materials. I used this one to modify
This arboreal high-speed-steel Irwin Unibit step drill does the work of a dozen twist drills for boring, enlarging, and deburring holes in sheet metal, stainless steel, copper, brass, aluminum, plastic, and other thin materials. I used this one to modify a gorgeous anodized-aluminum TracRac lumber rack to fit a new pickup truck. The original was patented by Harry C. Oakes of Wyoming, New York, in September of 1973.
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20 / 27
Made in the United States, this MegaPro 15-in-1 screwdriver has a stainless-steel shaft, stores seven different double-end bits in its innovative pull-out revolving cartridge, can drive 1/4-inch hex nuts and sheet-metal screws, and is a joy to use.
Made in the United States, this MegaPro 15-in-1 screwdriver has a stainless-steel shaft, stores seven different double-end bits in its innovative pull-out revolving cartridge, can drive 1/4-inch hex nuts and sheet-metal screws, and is a joy to use.
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21 / 27
Cordless drill/drivers date back to 1961, when Black & Decker introduced a small one powered by nickel-cadmium batteries. A decade later NASA used a special Black & Decker cordless drill for boring holes in the moon. Cordless has come a long way. Milwauke
Cordless drill/drivers date back to 1961, when Black & Decker introduced a small one powered by nickel-cadmium batteries. A decade later NASA used a special Black & Decker cordless drill for boring holes in the moon. Cordless has come a long way. Milwaukee’s jazzy new M12 12-volt sub-compact screwdriver, which was designed in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and made in China, is powered by lithium-ion batteries, weighs just two pounds, can ride in a pocket, and can drive an amazing 130 3-inch screws per charge. It even has an LED headlight and a battery fuel gauge.
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22 / 27
I’ve worn out at least 10 Vaughan “999” framing hammers since the 1970s, which is a compliment. I love their perfectly balanced forged-steel heads and their hickory handles, which are skinny just below the head to impede shock waves, swell in the middle t
I’ve worn out at least 10 Vaughan “999” framing hammers since the 1970s, which is a compliment. I love their perfectly balanced forged-steel heads and their hickory handles, which are skinny just below the head to impede shock waves, swell in the middle to form an alternate grip for nailing delicate materials or working in confined spaces, and then narrow slightly before flaring at the butt to form a primary grip that won't slip out of your hand. I guess I’m in large company, because Vaughan has been making the “999” since 1918. The hammer’s name honors steam locomotive No. 999, which powered the Empire State Express passenger train from New York City to Buffalo in 1891 at a world record average speed of 61.4 mph and a top speed of 82 mph. The train also reached an unofficial top speed of 112.5 mph in 1893, which would have made it the first vehicle on wheels to exceed 100 mph.
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23 / 27
Introduced in the 21st century, Stiletto’s ClawBar cat’s paw is a model of cultural cross-fertilization. Cat’s paws pull nails, and can be struck with a hammer to grab hold. Traditional western cat’s paws don’t work well because they often require a secon
Introduced in the 21st century, Stiletto’s ClawBar cat’s paw is a model of cultural cross-fertilization. Cat’s paws pull nails, and can be struck with a hammer to grab hold. Traditional western cat’s paws don’t work well because they often require a second bite to pull a long nail. Japanese cat’s paws, on the other hand, have longer forks and unique rocker heads that make it easier to withdraw a nail in one pull.The ClawBar, which is made in the United States, is not only patterned after the traditional steel Japanese cat’s paw, but it’s made of titanium, which won't rust and is nearly as strong as steel while weighing much less. A truss-like shaft further trims the weight to just half that of a comparable Japanese cat’s paw. Stiletto also introduced the world’s first titanium framing hammer in 1998.
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24 / 27
A remarkable article in the March/April 1985 issue of Fine Woodworking magazine documented the results of metallurgical tests performed on 11 popular chisels from England, Japan, Spain, the United States, and West Germany, including one of these Japanese
A remarkable article in the March/April 1985 issue of Fine Woodworking magazine documented the results of metallurgical tests performed on 11 popular chisels from England, Japan, Spain, the United States, and West Germany, including one of these Japanese ōire-nomi chisels. The chisel was made by the Oiichi family, descendants of samurai swordsmiths, by forge-welding a shock-absorbing, mild-steel back to a tool-steel cutting edge. The article revealed that the Oiichi’s fine-grain cutting edge registered an exceptionally hard 63.5 on the Rockwell C scale and had evenly distributed carbides, yielding “the very sharpest edge and the best retention” of the group.
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25 / 27
Made in Finland, this modern Gerber Back Paxe hatchet has a forged-steel head and a lightweight and almost unbreakable glass-filled nylon handle. It normally lives in a survival kit in my pickup truck, but I’ve learned that its compact size and super-shar
Made in Finland, this modern Gerber Back Paxe hatchet has a forged-steel head and a lightweight and almost unbreakable glass-filled nylon handle. It normally lives in a survival kit in my pickup truck, but I’ve learned that its compact size and super-sharp cutting edge can be a blessing for basic carving.
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26 / 27
Japanese waterstones wear quickly and must be flattened frequently, but they sharpen chisels and plane irons much faster than oilstones do and create an incomparable cutting edge. Soaked with water and rubbed with a nagura-to stone to create an abrasive p
Japanese waterstones wear quickly and must be flattened frequently, but they sharpen chisels and plane irons much faster than oilstones do and create an incomparable cutting edge. Soaked with water and rubbed with a nagura-to stone to create an abrasive paste, this synthetic King “Gold Stone” can put a mirror polish on a cutting edge.
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27 / 27
The oldest scientific artifact inside the Caltech Archives in Pasadena, California, is an Egyptian plumb bob that’s estimated to be 2,500 to 3,500 years old. It’s made of an igneous rock called diorite with a bronze ring attached. My contemporary Stanley
The oldest scientific artifact inside the Caltech Archives in Pasadena, California, is an Egyptian plumb bob that’s estimated to be 2,500 to 3,500 years old. It’s made of an igneous rock called diorite with a bronze ring attached. My contemporary Stanley 16-ounce plumb bob is solid brass with a replaceable hardened-steel tip. Basically a pointed weight on a string that uses gravity to establish or confirm true vertical, its high density and sleek figure help it summarily dismiss the wind.

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