Tools of the Trade

Every occupation–and hobby, for that matter–has the unique group of equipment that makes the job go easier.  For my day job, I am an orthodontist and have some special instruments, which is a another fancy name for tools.  When the locksmith comes to fix something, he has a van full of his special little tools, and my contractor friend has a trailer full of entirely different big tools.

Bodie Miller, the Olympic skier is reported to have a dozen pairs of skis, boots, goggles, etc. worth around 175 thousand dollars.  From early on, my daughter Audra also seemed to understand how important it was to have all the right equipment and look good too!

aud tools

The tools for automotive repair is a big business.  Can you imagine sending your son out to change the tire without giving him the right tool?

austin tire

austin wrench

When we bought the flat roof Prairie style house on Arlene Street back in 1987, I inherited a fine tool bench from the previous resident.  It has collected a bunch of stuff over the past 25 years.

tool bench

On the upper left, the small drawer cabinet holds the small parts, like screws, nails, bolts and nuts.  The large drawers underneath hold wrenches, sand paper, jigs, planes, and other medium sized miscellany.  At the top are two bows, patterns and the orange circles are new bandsaw blades.  There are squares, saws, levels, ear protectors, clamps and on the bench, my favorite chisels and hand planes.

Back in 1985, during a summer we lived in Goshen, my small tool box was stolen out of the garage.  It was devastating then and it would be much worse now.  Collecting and using the tools creates a kind of bonding worth so much more than the replacement value.

Boat building is much the same, with an interesting distinction from furniture building.  Most furniture is built along square lines and most parts have some flat surface.  This allows the parts to be shaped by large saws, shapers, routers, etc.  Boats become big quickly and unmovable.  They also have many parts that are not square or even have a flat surface.  This requires more hand tools that are used on the boat as it sits.  Below is the current state of affairs.

boat currently

Perhaps you can find a pencil, tape measure, masking tape, a level, protractor, clamps, files and a saw.  Behind the cross frame is the drill and the screw gun.  This is all for the process of adding the stern extensions to produce added flotation.  At times the immensity of the boat project seems endless, but each small step of progress eventually adds up.

Sharp Stuff

There are only about two things I don’t like sharp: opera sopranos and cheese. I do, however, like a sharp wit, a sharp shaver, sharp saw blades, chisels, and knives, not to mention sharp dressers and hairstyles…

sharp dressers & hair

sharp dressers

My appreciation for sharpness goes back a long way, as does most of what I write about it seems. In fourth grade, we discovered that the roots of some Indiana-lowland reeds are heavy enough to make the shaft fly straight for use as a spear. It was also sharp enough to hurt if you were hit.

Soon after that, I found out that the balsa wood I bought was light and strong but required a sharp pen knife to cut it well. Someone gave me a set of Exacto Knives with replaceable blades, and they served me well for the couple of decades that I built models.

A few years later, when I was in seventh grade, I developed an interest in Medieval crossbows, and more sophisticated flying projectiles. First, I made a six inch handle of balsa with two side guides at the front. They also anchored the rubber band which provided the power for the balsa darts. But when I shot them, they took all sorts of erratic flight patterns before I figured out that they needed a heavy point like the spears.

sharp shooter

After some experimentation, I perfected the technique of inserting a needle into the front of the dart, and wrapping it with thread which I glued to hold tight. I knew it was good when a practice shot went across the living room and stuck in the wall. With mom’s extreme disapproval of my new indoor sport, I had to take the dart shooter outside. Then the problem became trying to avoid losing the darts.

So one day, I put the dart gun in my book bag to show a couple of my most loyal friends. Right after school, we were sitting on the edge of the Concord Junior High gym stage, and I pulled out the little weapon. They were disbelieving of my reports how far it would shoot and insisted on some evidence. So I put a dart in the shooter, and pulled back the rubber band. A quiet zing followed by a tick had us running to the other side of the gym, and there we found the needle dart stuck in the floor.

Of course, we had to try again to see if we could set a distance record, and so I aimed a bit higher. Another zing but this time there was no tick. We looked around for a few minutes before finding it out of reach, securely stuck in a ceiling acoustic tile. That left one more dart, which before too long was stuck in the ceiling also. The last time I saw those darts was around ten years later, stuck in the same place.

The quality of furniture and boat building has a very direct relationship to how sharp the tools are. A dull blade heats up more, bends slightly and wanders from the straight path. A dull router bit burns the wood and is hard to sand out without losing the shape of the profile.

Several different methods are used to sharpen woodworking tools including coarse and fine stones, diamond covered metal blocks, and the one I use most often: sandpaper on glass. I start with 360 grit paper if general contouring is needed, and then go on to 600, 1000 and 2000 grit paper. For anyone wanting to try it, the paper is available at auto body shops.

sharpening jig

The first key to success is going through each grit, and eliminating the scratches from the last grit before going on. The second key is to use some holder to keep the orientation of the blade exactly the same. Again, many sharpening jigs are available but I decided to make my own. It references the tool to the top surface, and is held by screw friction.

sharp chisel

wood curls

Below is a sharp boat, the 16 foot Marlin Scorpion my dad bought in 1971, when I was in high school. Uncle Johnny is driving, with Ben and John Crist, Lane Hartman, and Austin Lehman.

marlin boat

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

Hebrews 4:12

Starbucks and Steinways

Repeated exposure to any variety of things eventually enables a person to differentiate between very small differences. My assistant Nicole has handled thin orthodontic wire so much that she can sort 0.012 wire from 0.014, which is only two thousandths of an inch apart. My wife Jan’s pecan pie is top-ranked in the world, and I could tell it, eyes closed, from Cracker Barrel, or the best at the World Missionary Press yearly pot-luck fundraiser. Maybe you know about Stradivarius, Steinway, the twelve Eskimo words for snow, or the forty shades of Irish green.

If you ever served coffee at River Oaks Church, you have heard the discussion about the favorite brands like Starbucks, Seattle Blend, and how they compare to McDonald’s, or the Cadillac coffee at Essenhaus. Terms like robust, acidic, bold, weak, sweet, bitter, nutty, fruity, etc. float around along with the whisper of tales of Kenyan, Columbian, or that favorite place in Jamaica, the Blue Mountain. Personally, I have never developed the habit as I have not been able to connect the wonderful aroma of the bean to its bitter taste.

Chocolate, on the other hand, is something I can relate to. It’s easy for me to rank in ascending order: Nestles Crunch, Toblerone, Hersheys with Almonds, Lindt (Swiss), Verkade with Hazelnuts (Dutch), Ghiradelli Fudge (Sundae), and finally at the top, Olympia Candy Kitchen Turtles.

In the same way, wood is wood unless you hang around wood workers or boat builders. During my days working at Swartzendruber Hardwood Creations with furniture woods, I could probably have identified a dozen species by how they smelled being cut. I love working with the American hardwoods, the beauty of book-matched cherry, dark walnut and maple with its curly variations. Below are two rolling pins of cherry, maple and walnut from my long ago craft show days.

rolling pins

Woods are separated by many physical properties including density, shrinkage, hardness, stiffness, tensile and compressive strength. Imagine someone in my family getting to do a wood hardness science project!

which wood

which wood 2

The main characteristics that matter to boat parts are simply weight, strength, fastening ability, and rot resistance. Over the years, popular boat building woods have included Mahogany, White Oak, Teak, Alaska Yellow Cedar, Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar, Sitka Spruce, Cypress, Spanish Cedar.

For my boat, I chose White Oak for the keel and the key stringers. It meets the criteria as a tough, strong wood, but its tendency to split into sharp fibers makes it not so friendly. The worst splinters of the whole process come from handling this wood.


For frames and other parts, I chose Alaska Yellow Cedar, which was also straight grained with no knots in 12-16 ft lengths. It is among the leaders for stiffness, light weight and rot resistance. One surprise was the pungent aroma when machining the wood. It reminds me of Grandma’s cedar chest, but a bit more spicy and intense. I do like how it cuts with chisels and planes, and almost never cuts me back.


I also considered trying Sitka Spruce which was the gold standard in the early part of the last century. It was used in early airplanes for its long straight grain and extreme stiffness. When compared by weight, it actually is stiffer than metal, which helps make it great for piano and guitar soundboards. The Sopwith Camel was a British First World War Biplane introduced in 1917.

Sopwith F-1 Camel

People are also uniquely made. When we recognize these special characteristics in each other, we best fulfill our common purposes given by the Creator.

More than Meets the Eye

American glitz is famous for being hollow on the inside.  What shows on the surface attracts the attention, and sells the product, but if truth were known, may not fully represent what is under the surface.


Image might drive contemporary marketing but it doesn’t work so well when someone asks me, “What would you do if this was your child,” or “Who is going to do the first in-water test of this boat?”  Even if I was only making this boat for an unknown blog reader, I would try to do my best.  It’s just the way the Golden Rule plays out.  There is also the principle of what goes around comes around, so if the future figures in to your thinking at all, now is the time to do it right.

Building the hull framework and starting the floor reminded me of some interesting construction details that will never see the light of day.  That is, of course, unless the boat gets into a serious accident that does damage to the core.  Severe stress has a way of exposing what a thing (and a person) is made of.


Wood fibers have amazing longitudinal strength, but wherever the continuity of the wood fibers is interrupted, as in a glued joint, the strength drops off dramatically.  The essence of traditional joinery is to create some kind of interlocking crossover to help with mechanical strength, besides just the glue.  Here are examples of a mortise and tenon, and a few dovetail test pieces.



Webster defines integrity as the “state of being complete or undivided.”  As I started building the cross frames, it looked like the corners needed some extra help, or a little stress could quickly “divide” them.  In this case, I decided on using dowels because with a holding jig, they can be done relatively quickly and with repeatable quality.  I also added 3/8″ plywood corner braces glued on with epoxy as this also extends continuous wood fibers across the joint.




Of course, there is still the problem of a sincerely well-meaning person not knowing how to do something.  But this is self-correcting because others will help anyone with a habit of giving their best effort.

God rewards the honest truth seeker.