People ask me whether I miss making furniture and, until recently, the answer has been no as I get so much pleasure from seeing each of our unique projects take shape and come together, and running the business.
However, in the last few months I have started to get the itch again. I think it’s due to a small quantity of South American Rosewood that I was recently sold by a fine chap helping to develop an ecologically sustainable link with local communities in Bolivia.
It’s beautiful stuff and has got me reaching for my toolbox again. Unfortunately, when I opened my leather pouch of Robert Sorby chisels that I bought when I set up the business, I found that inactivity had led to neglect and they were in a sorry state.
But as we are in Sheffield, the historic home of some of the world’s finest tools and tool makers, I was able to pop into Robert Sorby’s factory on Athol Rd and find out if anything could be done.
Seven days later I got a call to say they were ready to collect and was absolutely thrilled to open up a roll of fully refurbished chisels with razor sharp edges and bright, repolished boxwood handles. How lovely that Sheffield still has some of the old family names which are still going strong producing the best tools in the world.
Here at my fathers heart, our team of cabinet-makers treasure their tools, as each individual has a favourite piece that they just couldn’t do without.
Because we all work differently, in different areas of cabinetry, and we also all have our own priorities and appreciations, I was interested to find out which tools we each use or cherish the most, and why they are so important to us.
When the longest-standing member of our team, Tim, was asked the question, without hesitation he too went straight for his Sheffield-made plane…
‘I love my Clifton No. 420 Shoulder plane. It’s not a tool I use every day but when I need to, it’s a pleasure! It’s used for trimming the shoulders or cheeks of a joint, for example a tenon, to take off that last little bit of material to ensure a perfect fit into a mortice. The blade finishes flush with the sides of the plane so it can fit right into the corner of the joint.
The plane is very accurately made, it fits nicely into your hand and is very easy to adjust and use. For the work I do, it’s definitely a necessity in my toolbox!’
Sentiment came into it with Andy, another of our cabinet makers, who also chose a plane for his favourite tool, but for very different reasons…
‘My dad, Ron Cartwright, left school in 1946 at the age of 14. He started working for Hill & Roberts builders in Walkley as a joiner. At the time, a chap named Arthur worked next door in a small joiner’s shop and he gave my dad some old tools to get him started.
One of these tools was this wooden plane that he used for many years. He’s now passed this on to me. I’ve sharpened it and used it but it's a lot harder to use than a modern plane - it has no screw adjusters, so you have to tap the blade with a hammer!
I still love it though - it holds a lot of sentiment with it being one of my dad’s first tools. It’s led me to where I am today. We think it’s around 90 to 100 year's old now.’
Our craftsman, Mark, who has been making furniture for 37 years, decided his trusty cabinet scraper was his number one go-to tool. Unlike the plane, which cuts wood in line with the grain, the cabinet scraper skims the surface of the wood scraping off the finest shavings.
‘This is excellent for using on hardwoods when the grain is unusual and ununiform, but interesting and attractive. In such instances a plane can be challenging to work with as it cuts the wood, and you need to choose the correct direction to have a smooth finish. With the cabinet scraper it’s different as the blade is sharpened in a different manner – you put a bur on the edge - so it scrapes rather than cuts. For example, it enables you to work timber lipping down to a veneered top with no tearing. I’d be lost without this tool.
For Martyn, a very different piece of equipment was selected as the most appreciated tool in his box. This was his unusual but undeniably useful Japanese saw…
‘One of my favourite tools is the Japanese Kataba crosscut saw. There are a variety of Japanese handsaws, but the Kabata is my favourite version.
Japanese handsaws have one stand-out difference from Western saws; they cut on the pull stroke rather than push stroke. Due to this single fundamental difference, Japanese saws have blades that are thinner, lighter and cut much smoother and faster. As the action of pulling the saw keeps tension on the blade, the blade doesn’t need to be as thick or heavy as a push saw.
This thin blade at 0.60mm and minimal set for narrow kerf enable super smooth flush cuts. And another advantage is that the blade separates from the handle so that it fits nicely in a tool bag. Bonus!’
In contrast to the Japanese crosscut saw, Howard had another very different piece of apparatus in mind, for both its usage, and its sentiment.
‘My most useful tool is my Combination Set. This has three measuring head attachments to a stainless-steel ruler. It was manufactured by Moore & Wright, a Sheffield company that has been making precision engineering tools for nearly 115 years!
This piece means a lot to me as it was a gift as a reminder of Sheffield when I first moved away. It’s been around the world with me and is finally back home in Sheffield again. This is a great tool for making furniture as it does so much from finding angles, dissecting radius’ and keeping squares, so I can use it a lot on a daily basis. It allows such versatile measuring on various types of work pieces. Nothing is ever the same making bespoke furniture which is where this comes in very handy!’
Joe, on the other hand, couldn’t resist his old faithful chisels, required daily for some of the intricate detail of cabinet-making…
‘My favourite tools are my chisels. They are massively helpful for finer details and they come in handy almost every day at work. I wouldn’t be able to do my job without them. This particular one is my favourite. It’s width makes it more versatile so it’s my go-to above the others. For example, I use it for cutting hinge rebates for doors and a lot of work that involves carving. I make sure I sharpen this one at least once a month because it makes working with timber a whole lot easier.’
So, there we have it, a team of meticulous cabinet-makers, all working on the same bespoke furniture, all treasuring different gadgets to help them achieve that perfect finish.
With Sheffield being the home to many leading tool manufactures, there is a sentiment and appreciation for finely made equipment and beautifully made furniture here.
And, although ‘it’s not the tools we use that make us good, but how we employ them’, it certainly doesn’t harm to have some of the world’s best on our doorstep!