Thursday, January 29, 2009

Time in the can

We're back at the broadfork workbench again doing the last step in the handle making process. 

I put a lot of thought into making this tool in every step of the process. I didn't want to get started with distribution and find out that I was doing something wrong, and have to rethink procedures on the fly. I am frequently reminded of the words of my first boss, Ernie Bradshaw, who told me, "Take time to do things right, because we don't have time to do them twice." 

I have tried to live my life that way as much as possible and it's worked pretty well for the 35 years since I worked with Mr. Bradshaw. 

When the tool handles come to me, there is a light wax coating on them that has to be applied for production purposes. When I ordered my first sample order of handles, I wasn't sure exactly how to deal with the wax.  At first I thought I would have to remove it by sanding and then apply a spar varnish to seal the wood. Then I remembered another old voice from my past, the one of Nol Putnam.

Nol was my first blacksmithing instructor at the John C. Campbell folk school in Brasstown, NC in July 1986. I had signed up for a 2 week class with this amazing master smith, and for some crazy reason, they didn't cancel the class, even though there were only 2 students. It turned out to be a great break for me and for the other student, Keith Kilby, who incidentally turned out to be one of the best knife makers in the country. We had pretty much one on one instruction at the earliest point in our careers. It was like showing up to your first guitar lesson and seeing Segovia sitting in the teacher's chair. I have to say in retrospect, that I learned as much about blacksmithing in those first 2 weeks as I did in the next 10 years, and I am still drawing information from that class.

Nol suggested I shape the handles of my hammers to better fit my hand. He suggested that I scrape the varnish off my hammer handles because it would keep my sweat and natural skin oils from getting into the wood. The varnish, he said, might even cause more issues with blisters. So, I took out my knife blade and scraped all my hammers, and I have ever since on all my wood handled tools.

Another trick I learned from Nol was an old formula for a metal finish that would work well on ironwork that was to be used indoors. It was a mixture of boiled linseed oil, turpentine, and bees wax. I have used all the years since, and I am using it now on broadfork handles.

Instead of trying to remove the wax that was in place on the tool handles when they came to me, I chose to add turpentine and linseed oil to it.

The process goes like this: After the handles are fitted to their sockets (from the last post) I soak both ends of each pair for 8 hours in a can of 50/50 linseed oil and turpentine.  Soaking the mix into the end grain helps to protect the handle ends from checking (cracking).When the ends are done, I rub the whole handle with the same mix with some 0000 steel wool. This mixes the oil with the wax, and takes advantage of the wax being there in the first place. The handles are then set aside to absorb the mix and dry. After that they are rubbed out, packaged, and shipped to their new home.

This is the least toxic handle finish I could come up with. Linseed oil is a product of flax seed, and turpentine is from a pine resin distillate. The combination of the two has been used for centuries as a wood finish. I also use the same stuff to finish the metal part of the broadfork. I know you don't want to take painted tines and put all that chemistry in your nice vegetable beds, so I did my homework and came up with this solution. It's old fashioned, and will need to be re-applied from time to time, but I think it's the right thing to do.

The weather is getting right to do a little 'forking, so check back in a day or two for some pictures of the broadfork in use. It's almost February and I am anxious to get something planted and under a cold frame. 

Thanks for tuning in,




  1. Good morning Gulland. Nice stuff .. always a pleasure to watch a craftsman at work. It's cool that you were able to find a non-toxic solution that doesn't use strange modern chemistry.

    Nice thoughts about getting started early with the seedlings. Growing stuff is fun :)

    I may have need for one of your broadforks if the landlady is cool about letting me use some of the back part of the yard for gardening .. otherwise it will be container gardening. There is even a stream nearby that I can get water from directly.

    Need to ask Greenbeans if he's cool with me posting a photo essay on his gorgeous suburban garden. The light was harsh that day, but everything was in bloom and was very pretty. His garden was a magnet for honeybees, which was pretty cool. (my Dad used to keep bees .. I helped with some of the work)

  2. Hey Gulland! Thanks for the tip. I've always wondered how handles had been perserved in the past (although I can remember my grandfather having linseed oil and turpentine on the shelf in the "old mill".) The old mill is where the barrels, casks, coffins and such were made, apparently by a cooper?

    Would I go about restoring the handles on the tools I have now by applying the linseed oil/turpentine mixture first then rubbing the bees wax in, the next day?

    Thanks, yooper

  3. Yooper, That mix was a cup of boiled linseed oil, a cup of turpentine, and a lump of beeswax about the size of a walnut melted together in a double boiler (to keep it from igniting). The resulting goo is applied with a rag and left to dry for about a day or two, but quicker if you add a bit of Japan paint dryer. It's good stuff and works on wood, too.

  4. That seems so reasonable, that you should let the oil from your hands soak into the wood… you *know* that you won't have an adverse reaction to that kind of finish. When I was a pimply teenager, I got bored one day and started rubbing oil off my forehead onto a hammer handle. It looked nice, I thought… I could have been on to something there. ;-)

    From your other website, it sounds like the broadfork isn't all that suitable for heavy clay soils like what we have around here — is that right?

    Just wanted to pick up one thing from yesterday's thread… one thing about being a chicken farm slave is that I've learned how to glue pipe and it also keeps my light electrical repair chops sharp (I'll take a shot at just about any electrical job as long as there's no juice). I don't call the electrician or plumber unless the repair involves an insurance claim or the septic tank…

  5. Hi FAR, That's a great image of a Georgia yute rubbing a hammer on his face...

    I just went out on a forkin' adventure today and opened up some virgin ground that was a sandy thick Alabama red clay glop and the fork did fine. I'm going to post some photos of that in a day of two. I'll have full details on how that's done then.

    Essentially, I don't want to promote the broadfork as an earth mover. It's not good for prying up tree roots or cantaloupe sized rocks. People get carried away with all that two handled leverage and can damage the tool that way. The broadfork works best in more mature soils, but can be used carefully and patiently to open up ground for new beds. I intend to have videos soon of the techniques I use to work the broadfork into less friendly soils. Stay tuned, I'm putting this stuff together now that I'm in a place where the ground isn't frozen until April. Ah, those sweet Southern winters...

    I would absolutely call in the Marines for septic tank work, otherwise I mostly do most repairs myself, too. I love the independence.