At some point, every person who describes themselves as a woodworker will make their own tools. That first tool may be some jig, like a cross-cut sled. Or with the resurgence of hand tool woodworking it may be something equally practical like a “Roubo” Square, or a marking gauge. For me, it was an in-cannel gouge.
Some years back I decided to make crossbows. What started as four turned into one with two wasted prototypes and a spare bit of 12/4 hard maple. I had a spare bedroom full of power tools, a crappy chisel set and an ancient all-metal Craftsman jigsaw. For reasons not necessary to this post, the channel needed to allow for a 1.25″ diameter bolt. I remember fretting over how to figure out how to cut a stopped groove down the center of the tiller that had a consistent concave curve to the trough. [Terminology: Prod is the specific term for the bow part, Tiller is the name of solid bit that “crosses” the Prod.]
I thought of using the table saw to cut most of the waste away, but that left me with having to figure a way to curve the bottom of the furrow and how to finish the cut back to the end of the trough. I thought about using a drill press to accommodate the same stock removal, and while that would get down to the nut (the string release mechanism) pretty distinctly, I still needed to hollow a curve to the bottom. I didn’t have a router and table, and didn’t even know how to use either at the time. So, I came to the conclusion that I needed to make my own tool to complete the job. I didn’t know of molding planes at that time and I’d vaguely heard of a scratch stock or molding irons, but had no idea what either actually was.
A trip to the local home improvement store yielded me a mighty fine 1-foot section of 1.25″ OD steel pipe (I think it’s actually sold as 1″ pipe). On one end I left the plastic cover that protected the threads and to the other sawed it off at about a 45 degree angle. I think I then spent about an hour wrestling a dremel tool with a grinding bit along to shape a bevel on the inside edge. Don’t ask me what the angle was, I couldn’t tell you. I don’t even know what kind of consistency there might have been. Still, I created this “round chisel” to cut the curved furrow and could be brought right up to the “square” end of the stopped mortise. There also needed to be a change in depth to the furrow so that it became shallower toward the back, and I had no idea how to measure any consistency for that. Still, I chopped and pared for several hours and created the curved furrow 15″ long and up to 1″ deep at the fore of the furrow, 5/8″ at the rear. Of three prototypes, one made it to this stage and somehow came our rather consistently hollowed. The proof of which was the finished crossbow could fire a fairly straight trajectory out to fifty yards.
I used that “round chisel” at least one more time before losing track of it. By the end, that plastic pipe cape had been pounded into a torn scrap, but somehow the edge retained enough sharpness to be useful. It’s nearly ten years later that I find out that an in-cannel gouge would be the somewhat proper name for that funky bit of pipe sharpening I did. Even I would point out that I chose a poor material that was cut with the wrong geometry and sharpened mostly incorrectly, then used to work a comparatively difficult lumber while driving it with a metal hammer. Still the first woodworking tool I set out to make did it’s job. I didn’t even know about tear out back then, and somehow I still avoided it.
There’s a real satisfaction to that kind of thing. Whether it’s a peculiar “chisel” or a crosscut sled or a try-square, taking the step to make your own woodworking tool, and having that tool come out serviceable, is a momentous step in learning our craft. Regardless of our ignorance, that we are able to not only make a finished product but a tool to help us make that finished product brings us that much deeper into understanding our craft. We start to learn what truly makes the tools tick when we start making our own. It brings us closer to the project too, I think, and we should not forget… We not only make that chair, or blanket chest, or crossbow, but we made the thing that made that finished piece possible. And for that, we can take a small extra measure of pride for our accomplishment.