Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Miter Jack Of Excellence

Last month we received an email from a tool collector who sent us some pictures of a beautiful miter jack manufactured by the La Forge Royale company. The collector asked if we'd like to see the tool. We said, "absolutely". The gentleman replied, "I'm just up the street from you, I can come over at your convenience."

I wasn't sure if he was pulling our leg. Turns out he wasn't actually just up the street. It was more like just across the creek.

Earlier this week we got together to pore over this gem of a vise.

First off, a little history. La Forge Royale was under the direction of at least two men that we're aware of. A Mr. Lemainque, and later, Mr. Feron. It was the latter's catalog that the Midwest Tool Collector's Association reprinted in the 1980's, and from which we derive all of our images of this firm's wares.

This vise comes from the earlier period under Lemainque. The vise itself is stamped at least 5 times with A. DENIS, likely a previous owner of the vise.

I've used miter jacks for many years, and have built several versions to handle everything from full size case mouldings to diminutive parquetry for musical instruments. They are powerful fixtures that are more versatile than shooting boards (although more complex to construct.) They also require a more advanced technique to master. Get ham-handed with them and it isn't long before you've planed away all your accuracy. One big plus of the miter jack is that it places the workpiece in such a position that you can use a typical bench plane in a normal fashion, not on its side as in a shooting board. I prefer a low cutting angle, since most of the work is on end grain or some angled variant of such. I'm usually not a fan of bevel up planes, but for miter jacks I love them. They have a low center of gravity which feels grounded on the angled ramp of the jack. I usually use my Lie-Nielsen 164. You can also plane a miter from virtually any direction, which is especially helpful when planing moulded pieces to avoid blowing out the moulded elements. Tweaking the angle is also easily accomplished by subtly shifting the workpiece off-angle in the jaws. It doesn't have to sit dead flat on the ramps.

But enough about how miter jacks work. They work. If you don't have one, build one.

The first mystery we tried to unravel was the configuration of the clamping block, with its bold cyma reversa profile. With the jack in position for planing 45 deg. miters the inside of the block is parallel to the planing surface, and the bench it rests on.

With a holdfast position close to the front of the bench*, the jack can be held somewhat securely. However, I don't think this method would withstand the rotational forces encountered in use. 

*For illustration only. I don't have a hole in this bench close enough to the front, so the jack is positioned too far away from the front edge of the bench to be functional.

As I looked close at the sides of the block, I found some V-shaped notches in both sides. With the jack position for 45 degree planing, these notches matched up perfectly with the square dogs in my wagon vise.

The jack sits firmly on the bench held between dogs. A holdfast in the pocket would improve the stability even further.

While turning the vise around countless times I noticed the bottom of the mounting block was left with a toothed surface.

Underneath the fixed jaw I discovered a metallic hook and screw to engage the hook.

I pivoted the hook into position, then operated the vise.

A secondary, but much smaller jaw was now traveling along with the main jaw. What was this for? I didn't have a clue.

I looked closer at the screw itself. It's beech (as is the entire vise), precisely made, with a straight section to which is pinned a brass sleeve that engages a garter screwed to the moving jaw.

The end of the screw is made of steel, and I surmise that this bit of hardware also engages the pin through the brass sleeve. I couldn't investigate this further without doing harm to the vise.

The handle of the screw is fitted with a detachable lever, presumably to increase torque or speed when adjusting the vise. The lever would not engage the octagonal handle past this point. It may have been intended to slide off entirely. Note that this feature is not pictured in the catalog image.

I soon returned to the clamping block. The opposite side (above) has its face at 45 degrees to the opposing face, and parallel to the face of the opposing pocket. That places the pocket above at 45 degrees to the opposing pocket.

In other words, when the vise is placed along the front edge of the bench, the pocket is now parallel with the top of the bench, and the entire vise can now be held very securely to the bench (since the clamping block and body of the vise form a massive rabbet) with a single holdfast. The vise is now positioned for 90 degree (square) planing.

But it wasn't until I started operating the vise in this position that the smaller moving block started making sense.

As I opened the jaws, I had forgotten that I left the metal hook engaged. The small block moved with the larger and I immediately recognized its purpose.

I grabbed a bevel square to check.

The angle was 22.5 degrees. Beautiful.

Actually it was more like 23. And here's the eerie thing. The number "23" is written on the small block's ramp. Perhaps the maker or owner wrote that on there as a reminder of the actual degree of the ramp? But why not correct it?

One last detail I couldn't figure out. This little dowel sticking out the end of the fixed jaw. It's not pinning anything. The top half of the jaw is just finger jointed to the bottom half. No other joinery here.

So if this post hasn't motivated you to build one of these, what's your excuse? I'm going to build a reproduction at some point, even though I have perfectly serviceable jacks in the shop.

Special thanks to the owner, who is letting me examine the vise for a few more days. Without a doubt, a very sweet miter jack.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Few Holdfasts

We still have a few of our hand-forged holdfasts left. These are not on our website, but only for sale through the blog. More info here.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Crisscross Parts Goofs

Due to an oversight at the factory in Shengzen, we've been shipping out the incorrect type of retaining ring that snaps onto the Crisscross' pivot pin. We just discovered it last week.

The correct e-style retaining ring is pictured above, installed on a pivot pin, installed in a Crisscross.

And here is the correct e-style ring on its own:

The incorrect type of retaining ring is pictured below.

This is the ring that has been mistakenly shipped with several Crisscrosses.

Here's the deal. Both rings work just fine with the Crisscross. We use the e-style ring because is presses onto the pin easily without tools, or with a flat blade screwdriver. The other type with two holes requires a special tool to install, or if you're Jeff Miller, a couple toothpicks and some string.

If you have the incorrect rings, and would like a replacement set of e-style rings, drop us a line at and we'll send you some. If you have the special tool, go ahead and use the wrong style, it won't matter.

Oh, and that bit about Shengzen was a joke. Seriously. Our hardware kits are carefully assembled by a local family-run fasteners supply house. This was a simple typo (our error) that caused the mix up.

The only thing we offer that's made in China is a mean cup of English tea. Earl Gray. Hot.

Friday, June 13, 2014

FORP Update and a French Oak Masterpiece

Earlier this week we traveled to Chicago to catch up with Jeff Miller in his bowling-alley turned furniture-making magic castle.

When we arrived at Jeff's he was busy ripping some styrofoam on the sliding table saw, packing up a couple cherry side tables for a customer in Las Vegas. I commented that I hoped he'd built the chairs in the winter. He replied "I never thought about the humidity levels out there". And you know what? He doesn't need to. Jeff could fit a piston-tight drawer in January, ship it off to Da Nang in July and never get a call back. He's that good.

So when we walked up to Jeff's FORP bench, it was not unexpected when our jaws fell to the floor like a cold steak. But they fell nonetheless.

First off, Jeff departed from the Plate 11 bench a bit by incorporating a wagon vise and a row of square dogs. Jeff has probably installed more Benchcrafted Tail Vises than anyone we know, so its no surprise that his wooden wagon vise shares some features with our vise.

The dog block is tapped to receive the 1-3/4" X 3-1/2 tpi left-hand screw. To install the block into its cavity, Jeff milled some wide rabbets into both the front laminate and the front edge of the rear top section to receive the block, which in turn has rabbets that engage the rabbets in the top. The block slides up from below, stops against the upper rabbets, then two rails are slipped into the lower rabbets in the block and screwed into the top from the inside. The components are massive, which lends great stability to the entire vise. I was shocked when I operated the vise. I felt no resistance along the entire travel of the vise. It was frictionless. And it was wonderful.

The head of the screw itself is fastened to the end cap via a steel two-piece garter that resides in a counterbore behind the shoulder of the screw's head. Jeff tapped the garter for machine screws, the whole assembly goes in from the outside, while the screws pull the garter tight from the inside face of the end cap. When the vise is assembled, there are no visible fasteners, and the garter is completely hidden. If Roubo had designed a wooden wagon vise, this would be it.

The vise hardware was made by Lake Erie Toolworks and smith Peter Ross.

The leg vise is beautifully and meticulously crafted. Jeff played his cards right and waited until winter to fit the forged ring, and many of the other critical elements on the bench.

Jeff fit his leg vise garter perfectly. It slips in and out without friction, and tightens up sweetly as you insert the last quarter inch.

Jeff's bench was truly inspirational to behold. One of the finest benches I've ever seen.

It was a great morning spent in Jeff's shop, reminiscing about FORP almost a year ago now. We're looking forward to getting together again next year to do it all over again. Yes, it's official, FORP II is a go. We've got the wood, and we've got the go ahead from Wyatt Childs. He's thrilled to be hosting the event again. The same group of people will be gathering in Barnesville, GA to make more incredible benches from this incredible material. Myself, Jeff Miller, Raney Nelson, Chris Schwarz, and Don Williams, all have agreed to return.

Please don't send us emails at this time asking for more details. We simply don't have them. We will be posting the official announcement early this fall, and will give advanced warning before we do so. As with last time, it will be first come, first served.