Full Chisel Blog

July 30, 2011

Spent four wonderful hours…

talking furniture and history with Jonathan Fairbanks, author of the definitive work American Furniture 1620 to Present with Elizabeth Bidwell Bates, 1987.  The Fairbanks family has their reunion at This is The Place Heritage Park [where I use to work] at the family 2 story adobe classic I-house built in 1852 and moved to the park in 1981.

This is the only time every year I get to see him, I wanted to personally thank him for writing the Forward to Shellac, Linseed Oil, & Paint – Traditional 19th Century Woodwork Finishes and to renew our old friendship.  I first met Jonathan in 1976 and we have been good friends since.

I am sure many of the people that were listening to our conversation were bored as it ranged from Mormon furniture to spectral analysis of silver using x-ray spectrography, dendrochronology, faking pottery to pass the x-ray tests and the double isotopes of oxygen found in organic materials.

And perhaps I was the only person there that could understand his recitations in Old English of some classic real early American verses.


p.s.sold all of the books I took with me, picked up a couple of restoration projects and need to look into the structure of the ud.

July 28, 2011

V.O.C. reconsidering

Filed under: Alchemy,Finishing,Historical Material,Of Interest,Techniques,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 2:49 pm

The V.O.C. which stands for Volatile Organic Compound is the latest buzz-word around the ‘green’ world.  These are the nasty vapors given off by organic compounds and the higher the VOC’s the nastier the compound.

Turpentine is considered high in VOC’s, turpentine is made by taking sap or pitch from living evergreen trees and converting it to turpentine by distillation with the byproduct being colophony rosin.

And as you see it just comes out of the tree on its own, this being a fir tree in my front yard and yes I will be collecting the pitch and no I don’t score the tree.  As you may see and as I have observed the sap/pitch just leaks out at knots, abrasions, insect holes or other places.

And this is going on all the time all over the world, right now those VOC’s are just evaporating from those trees anyway.  So it is my conjecture that VOC’s when it comes to turpentine just don’t count.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.


July 25, 2011

Unusual characteristic of Pine Pitch

On a recent trip to the Uinta Mountains in Utah at about 9,000 feet I collected some pine and fir pitch which I kept seperate.

I collected more pine pitch from mostly Ponderosa and Lodgepole pine but did collect a bit from some silver fir.

I took the pine pitch and put it in a cheesecloth bag and tied it with a piece of jute cord.  I suspended the pitch bag in some pure alcohol and let it sit overnight.

The next morning I walked into the shop and looked at the pine pitch to see how it was progressing.  Well to my surprise the pitch had wicked up the jute cord went onto the bench top and dripped down onto the commander mallet head and onto the floor.  I cleaned everything up with a putty knife and saved what I could.  I wiped off the mallet head and left a nice finish.

The above photograph show what things looked like, then I took an empty tin can and put the wick in to collect the pitch that appears to be alive.  Probably some kind of capillary action, alcohol evaporation, etc but I have never had this happen with seedlac which I prepare all the time using this manner.

Too late to include this tidbit of pitch behavior in Shellac, Linseed Oil, & Paint – Traditional 19th Century Woodwork Finishes, so you see it here for the first time.

Looking forward to making some varnish from this stuff, got better than 3/4″ of the pitch into the can before it stopped working.  I have the cord soaking in the container and might try to replicate the process.


July 22, 2011

I am sorry you can’t put Primer and Paint in the same can

You just can’t.  Now that two companies are now selling a product that they say contains primer and paint in the same can, I feel free to take them to task.  I stopped by a local big box store and got the most experienced person in the paint department and asked them if they had that product.

They said that they did indeed have that product.  I asked if it had a separate can for the primer in the can?  He hesitated and said ‘no’.  He then said that it was new chemistry.

I asked if it needed a special brush and he said no.  So I then said, ‘so you apply the paint with a regular brush and the primer goes on first, dries and is sanded before the wet paint in the same brush goes over the top?’

At this point he smiled, dropped his gaze to the floor, cleared his throat and said that was what he was suppose to say.  I realized he didn’t buy it either.  Next time I am in there I will show him a copy of Shellac, Linseed Oil & Paint, so he doesn’t think I am some kind of weirdo.  But then given the way I dress and act the book may do nothing to change his mind.

Back to the issue at hand, sure you may put primer and paint in the same can but that defeats the purpose of a primer.  So if they do put primer and paint in the same can then the primer is too thick and the paint is too thin.  You put them together and you get neither the benefits or purposes of either.  It is all advertising hype, nay it is an outright lie, yet people swallow this crap all the time.

Like using latex paint and water based varnishes because you are able to clean up the brushes with soap and water.  It is also possible to wash out oil based paint and varnish from the brushes with soap and water.  Don’t get me started.



July 18, 2011

Re-enacting Woodworking

Filed under: Historical Material,Of Interest,Proper Tools,The Trade,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 12:16 pm


With the popularity of various reenacting groups, such as
colonial, frontier, Civil War era, etc there is also growth in the trades
demonstrated at these gatherings.
Blacksmithing is popular but there is an ever increasing number of
woodworkers who are re-enactors and are bringing their tools with them to


I know this is true because I receive numerous inquiries as
to the proper tools for a given impression.
The impression is the persona or character that one adopts and follows
through with almost religious fanaticism.
People involved in reenacting are very zealous in what they do and many
of them have little to do and nothing good to say about ‘FARBS’.


Apparently the term FARB came from a re-enactor who when
confronted with a bad impression [read poor attempt at recreating history] he
responded ‘far be it from me…’ and
the term still stands for not being period correct.  Period correct is a very important concept
for re-enactors and living history interpreters.


This also translates into historic interpretation at living
history museums.  Museums which I
consider to be the best for teaching history, especially those using first
person role playing interpreters.  This
gets people really involved in history and they will come away with much more
information than if a docent just recites canned scrip.  This type of interpretation does take much
more preparation, but the benefits are well worth the effort put into the


Interpreting a craftsman in Colonial Williamsburg would be
different from a craftsman of the same period building furniture on the
frontier.  The furniture may show some
elements of sophistication that appear in fancier styles of the coast but their
tools were the basic tool set, the difference is the demand.  Everyone needed furniture on the frontier and
it was too heavy to transport so it was made at the edge of civilization in the
18th and 19th century.


A traveling or itinerant cabinetmaker would have a kit of
tools that were just what was needed to do the jobs at hand and nothing
else.  Weight and size are important and
tools were utilized for purposes not originally intended.  Patrick Gass’ tool box was a lot different
from Duncan Phyfe’s’ tool box but both served their individual purposes.


We can learn much from the existing inventories, probate
records and other historic material to determine the type of tools necessary
for a particular interpretative impression but also logistics, weight size and
other considerations need to be incorporated when making decisions about what
tools would have been used.  It is better
to err on the fewer tool side as carrying that stuff around can be very
important when you are going over mountains.


Just because it was available doesn’t mean that it was
necessarily used.  And many tools were
repurposed for particular applications.
Not that I would recommending doing this but I have seen examples where
an ax head had been lashed on a handle by a Native American to convert it into
an adze.  They also liked to heat up
rasps and files and branding the wood with that particular pattern.  And trade goods always included tools.


Also some ideas that were good at the time turned out not to
be so good.  A particular instance which was repeated 40 years later was that first experienced by the Lewis & Clark Expedition, the financing of which I will not get into at this particular moment, did not carry any handles for their axes or hatchets as they were sure they could find suitable hardwoods for their handles out West.


When attempting to make the wooden parts for their folding
iron boat [a good idea gone bad] they broke 16 [sixteen] chokecherry handles in
one hour.  Years later the western
pioneers did not take the wooden tool handles for their plows, harrows,
shovels, axes, etc on their exodus to the west in order to reduce the load on
wagons, and quickly learned there wasn’t any available wood for handles and
informed future emigrants to keep their tool handles intact.


Site specific interpretation, with a personal impression can
be a very informative way to convey local and regional history to the general
public that really gets them involved far beyond a static museum exhibit.  And doing an interpretation with the
necessary, sufficient, proper tools, materials and techniques will help
preserve the past, which in this day is exceedingly more difficult.



July 11, 2011

“Why I am odd?”

Filed under: Historical Material,Of Interest,Publications,The Trade,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 8:26 am

I was asked the other day by a friend in a face to face meeting; ‘Why are you so odd?’

And he was asking in a good way, he wanted to know why I had chosen the path I have taken and how did I get here and what were the influences that developed into my curious, peculiar and unique philosophy?  I do after all only own 19th century
clothing, I don’t drive a car, I don’t use power tools, I don’t use anything
modern when it relates to woodworking, I know much more about the past than the
present.  I am not a Luddite, but I am sympathetic to their cause.

I thought about this for a moment and related the following story: it all started while I was at the University of Utah studying philosophy specializing in linguistics and logic, and during that time I met a lady who would become my first wife. At the time she happened to be the State Champion in black powder rifle and pistol and her father was a muzzleloader/mountain man as well as an accomplished architect, cabinetmaker, gun-maker, blacksmith, a real renaissance man with an extensive library.

Realizing that I couldn’t get a job with DuPont as a philosopher, I needed a trade, I liked blacksmithing but couldn’t take the heat, and then my fiancé saw an advertisement in a local newspaper for apprentice Cabinetmakers. Having read Sloan, Hayward, Watson, Mercer, Goodman, Salaman and others, I applied for the job, told in the interview I would have to cut my hair for safety reasons, I agreed and got the job, that was in the fall of 1972.

Fetzer’s Salt Lake Cabinet & Fixture Company was and is one of the largest, finest commercial cabinet shops in the Western United States and many of the craftsmen are from Germany, Europe and the United Kingdom. This was a big shop, it had a separate mill, cabinet shop, upholstery shop, hardware shop and finishing shop, so my training was specific to cabinetmaking and I did a bit of upholstery but no mill work, etc.

I was fortunate enough to be assigned to Werner Krause who did the finest high end work the shop put out, he was the head cabinetmaker. After the obligatory keeping the apprentice in the dark as to trade secrets, trust and friendship soon developed and was accepted and taught all I could learn.

At about the same time a friend had an antique shop and I started to repair old furniture for him and buying all of the old tools I could find. Even bought the tools the craftsmen at Fetzers were given after WWII for rebuilding their war devastated countries. They were all hand tools as they had no electricity and most were marked CARE. Most of the craftsmen were happy to get rid of their old tools for money to the crazy apprentice.

Sometimes it paid off, a project came into the shop where 13 wooden columns needed to be restored to put in a new downtown Salt Lake City store. They had an interesting history in that they were originally made to support the gallery in the Mormon Tabernacle built in the 1860’s. They were made of solid wood, a big log bored out and turned on a rather large lathe, the columns were 16 feet tall. The capitals and plinths were turned separate and attached. Well the story goes that when Brigham Young saw how they were constructed that he ordered new ones built that were coopered together rather than solid logs. That proved to be a better design as these columns did split over the course of their lifetime.

These columns had been used somewhere and had many coats of paint, filled cracks and were in need of stripping, they wanted them the natural wood. It wasn’t until years later that I realized they should have been painted as that is what the originating designers and craftsman had intended, the final ones are marbleized and look great. They tried everything from grinder to belt sanders, power planers, nothing worked.

So being a stupid apprentice I said to Werner that I could do that with a metal spoke shave. He went to the shop foreman and told him, he told me to bring my tools in the morning. So the next day I showed up with a few old metal spoke shaves and showed them how they worked. They said excellent and said ‘now finish the rest’. I still haven’t learned to keep my mouth shut.

As I began my apprenticeship at the same time Salt Lake Technical College started its apprenticeship Cabinetmaking program after not having one for 22 years and was able to attend classes in the evening and went through 3 years of supplemental training. Fetzers even paid the tuition and attendance was required.

As a journeyman I figured it was time for my journey and started out on my own. I quickly found work at living history museums in Utah and Indiana and in 1977 I was interviewed for the position of Associate Furniture Conservator at the Henry Francis DuPont Winterthur Museum. Ah the serendipity.

I opened up my own shop in 1980 and published Shepherds’ Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker in 1981, it was the kind of book I wanted when I started out, still a good book after all these years. We got some major contracts with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the National Park Service and others to restore artifacts and build historic woodwork, so I have been restoring antiquities for nearly 40 years and it’s all done with hand tools. Keeping in the theme I published Hide Glue – Historical & Practical Applications in 2009 and Shellac, Linseed Oil, & Paint – Traditional 19th Century Woodwork Finishes in 2011 and have reprinted The Universal Receipt Book [1824-1835 edition] containing 6000 recipes for paint, varnish, food, distilling, brewing, etc as well as the 1852 Utah Territorial Library Catalogue. I have also written magazine articles on preserving the past in Woodworker’s Journal, Muzzleloader Magazine and Fine Woodworking Magazine. And on my website and blog I have continued to help preserve traditional 19th century American woodworking technology and help conserve the antiquities we have left, remember they aren’t making them anymore.

During my experience I have had some moments that are difficult to describe but were responsible for me choosing my path. Setting next to a wood fireplace in an atmosphere conducive to history, I would read Sloan, Watson and others and from their pictures and words I was transported to the past. I have had occasion when working in a period cabinet shop, wearing clothing of the time, body nourished by traditional food and making a copy of an original piece of 19th century furniture, I have looked around and not been able, or willing to see anything modern and during those moments I couldn’t tell when I was. Those images and memories come back when I am doing traditional woodwork and I like that feeling, I am there, I am doing exactly what my ancestors did, the only difference is time.

Perhaps people think I am odd because I don’t use power tools, well my philosophy about that is the power tools are invariably expensive, take up a lot of valuable shop space, makes large quantities of annoying dust, are generally dangerous and always terribly noisy. But the main reason I don’t use power tools is that they are so slow.


July 9, 2011

The Anarchist’s Tool Chest – Review

Filed under: Historical Material,Of Interest,Reviews,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 6:39 am


The Anarchist’s Tool Chest

By Christopher Schwarz

Lost Art Press

In the first draft of this review I wrote: ‘I am probably not the best person to review
this book as much of the material I am quite familiar, but that is not going to
stop me.
’, but a friend pointed out that because of my experience I would
be an ideal person to review this book, so here I go. This work will appeal to
the professional woodworker to help focus their hand tool skills and refine
their tool collection.  And someone just getting into the glorious realm of hand tool work, and this publication will be a real boon.

And the name of the book ‘The Anarchist’s Tool Chest’ I find intriguing as is Chris’ personal story of his journey and how he came to consider himself an anarchist.  His
decision to reduce his hand tool collection to that which is needed and nothing
else, he could have just as well entitled the book ‘The Ascetic’s Tool Chest’.  But that doesn’t have the same punch.

The concept is brilliant, using period inventories and tool lists; Chris has shown that much can be done with fewer proper tools and the correct knowledge to use them.  And all of this is couched in the overall project of actually building that Anarchist’s Tool Chest itself.

This work will benefit those who are considering hand tool use, those who already use hand tools and those that are just taking up woodworking.  This book may keep people
from over populating their tool kit with tools they really don’t need and will probably never use.  It is a proper set of tools presented with a reasonable philosophy.

I enjoyed reading the book, I do disagree with Chris on a couple of issues as I always have, but those are of little importance here.  His style of writing is easy to follow,
sometimes funny with a few self deprecating comments thrown in to the mix kept
me entertained.

Read this book and see where you fit along the anarchist continuum.  Revolutionaries unite.  Anarchists untie.  I would say join the Anarchist’s Woodworking Club, but there isn’t one nor will there ever be one. If there were The Anarchist’s Tool Chest would be its codex.

Stephen Shepherd




July 8, 2011

Full Chisel Blog – back in business

Filed under: Finishing,Hide Glue,Historical Material,Of Interest,Publications,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 8:18 am

The problems with my blogs software has been repaired, updated and in good order.  I can now insert a picture here:

I can also add a link here and a link there and a link where ever I like.

Feels good to have control again.


July 1, 2011

The only Good tree is a Dead tree.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 5:06 pm

That may or may not be true. Logs come from dead trees and that is good. Timber and lumber also comes from dead trees and that is good. Firewood comes from dead trees and that is good. Amber comes from trees that are dead now and that is also good. Dead trees decompose and improve the soil which is a good thing. Dead wood is used to smoke meat, preserving and flavoring the flesh, to smoke leather, to make it waterproof and hide glue exposed to wood smoke will make it waterproof, all are good.
At one time in American history trees and products from trees [Navel Stores] were strategic materials of enough importance to cause the King of England to declare them his personal property and their unauthorized use a criminal offence. Shot with a musket with a wooden gun stock or hung from a tree, how appropriate.
Dead trees that have not been properly attended to, produce catastrophic forest fires and that is not very good. Trees not judicially managed become infected with insects and blight and that isn’t good at all as near as I can tell. There are so many standing dead trees that are not being utilized and that is both a national tragedy and a terrible waste of valuable natural resources and that is just silly. Jack Handy once said: “If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.”
Sap comes from living conifers and is made into turpentine and colophony rosin and that is good. Maple syrup comes from living sugar bush and that is sweet and good. Walnuts and other tree nuts come from living trees and they are tasty and good. Peaches, apples, pears and other fruits come from living trees and of course they are both delicious and good.
In the fall we marvel at the colors the trees ‘turn’. Well what really happens is the chlorophyll [the green stuff] dies and allows the yellows and reds; that have always been there to show through. Decreasing sunlight does this; Jack Frost not so much. Acorns from oak trees made ‘mast’ a food source for hogs in the nineteenth century in the Midwest. The decomposing trees produced some of the finest soil on the continent.
Trees [large vascular plants] are the largest biomass on earth and produce the most oxygen and scrub the most carbon dioxide, and if I remember my high school biology and chemistry correctly, that is a very good thing being a mouth breather.
Here is a conundrum, turpentine is high in VOC [volatile organic content, or some such thing] and this is considered a bad thing, those nasty VOC’s. However, the pine tree from whence the turpentine comes through the process of tapping living evergreen trees, and distilling the sap down to get turpentine and rosin, will actually give off those volatiles on their own, while just standing there, without any help from man, those nasty pine trees. How green is that?
We are here today because of trees both living and dead. From cradle to coffin wood surrounds us our entire lives. And the trees seem to keep coming backing back no matter what we do. Well maybe no. But they do seem to be persistent and we should probably encourage them to stick around. They do come in handy, dead or alive.

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