Metric versus Imperial

Yeeeaaaaah!!! It has been long time hasn’t it? Now then, some thoughts on measuring things for a coffee break….


At our recent courses with Chris Schwarz building two kinds of tool chest; Dutch and Anarchic flavoured, it was clear that some people used metric measurements and others used imperial.  Actually, that is fundamentally untrue:  In reality not much was being measured at all (which is sometimes the beauty of working with the dimensions of the stock that you have). But, insofar as anything did actually get measured, I could see the two systems in use. 


It set me thinking about how I approach the craft in terms of measurement. these days my first rule is ‘measure as little as possible’.  But when I do absolutely have to measure something when woodworking I do use both metric and Imperial interchangeably depending on what it is I am measuring. That’s odd because I use the metric system exclusively in my day job as a professional engineer and once, a long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away…) I used to scoff loudly at the ‘crazy’ Imperial system.  That was all brought to an end by a semi-retired engineer who taught me all I know about hogging things out of solid metal (The Black Art…).

I know you are wondering where this is going but stay with me on this…


Each weekend I would cycle to Barrie’s workshop and we would spend Saturday turning and milling solid metal or cutting and bending sheet. Usually this would be making things like fittings for operating theatre lights or dentists light boxes for looking at X-rays.  Invariably he would give me things to do accompanied by metric drawings. One day he gave me  a drawing in imperial and I was, to put it politely, ‘amused’ (probably in truth I was an obnoxious and condescending know it all).  Instead of “taking the ‘ump” at my irksome manner Barrie took it in his stride, made a cup of tea and sat down to tell me a story: At the start of his career in the early 1960s he worked for Hunting Defence, developing missile systems for the British effort in the cold war. At one point he was asked to attend the Paris Airshow where Mikoyan Gurevich (a.k.a MiG, a.k.a ze dastardly Russians) were showing off their latest wonder-jet; the MiG-21. The Russians allowed the Brits to walk around their new fighter, to touch it and even to take pictures but our boys were under a diktat not to measure anything. Production of any sort of measuring device when in the proximity of the aircraft  would mean that serious consequences would ensue.  Why? The Russians knew that if we were able to measure their aircraft that we could gauge its performance. So, what to do?

One of Barrie’s colleagues hit on a neat suggestion.  He pointed out that the length of a typical stride of a six foot man is a yard (3 feet). Taking strides of a metre looks unnatural but a yard looks natural for most around that height. He went on to point out that the same six footer would have an arm span of precisely the same distance, at least one of the British delegation would have shoes that were exactly a foot in length, that the distance from index finger to that heel of your hand is about six inches and that the distance to the first joint of your thumb is about an inch.  The British delegation walked around the aircraft, pacing the perimeter of its wings. they took photos with a hand on a wing, then on the fuselage and a foot next to a wheel. In short they used Imperial dimensions and at the end of it they were able to calculate the MiG21’s wing area, wing thickness, fuselage area, length, width and thereby its gauge performance with a remarkable degree of accuracy.  I stopped laughing at Imperial measurement after that and realised that sometimes using the ‘measure of man’ is the right thing to do.

And here is the curious thing: when I absolutely have to measure something for woodworking, completely unconsciously I find myself dropping into Imperial and have to consciously flip to metric. But, if I am working in metal I use metric and have to consciously flip to Imperial (when dealing with American supplier for example).  Bizarre.  

All of the foregoing is, of course, a long way round of saying that each system has its place. But then I know Peter Follansbee is laughing at me because I have never seen Peter measure anything at all…


– Paul Mayon


Dutch Hasp


Following our Dutch Tool Chest course a couple of students let us know that on some of the hardware the rotating hasp was located the wrong way around.  The correct way around for this is shown in the picture above (provided by Ed Sutton)

The fix fortunately is relatively easy and is shown below: as supplied, the connecting pin is peened over at both ends to stop it falling out.  So to turn around the hasp:

1. File off the peening on one end.

2. Using a drift ( an old drill bit of the same diameter as the pin will do) knock out the pin as shown in picture two.

3. Turn the screwed section of the hasp around as shown in the final picture and place your drift back in to line up the assembly.

4. Simply knock the pin back in (which will punch the locating drift back out).

5. Peen the filed end of the pin back over ( in other words mushroom the head of the pin) with a hammer.

This is our fault for not spotting it on some sets of hardware. We have had our blacksmith clapped in the stocks and are pelting him with rotten eggs as I write…



-Paul Mayon

August 4th 1914

WW1 german workshop

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”  George Santayana

The lights began to go out all over Europe on June 28th 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. By July 28th the European continent was at war and, one hundred years ago today, the darkness arrived on the shores of this island as war was declared between The British Empire and Imperial Germany.

Why am I telling you this? Well, because my other affliction apart from woodworking is early twentieth century history, the events that led to World War One and its aftermath. In particular I am interested in early aviation: It was the engineers and the woodworkers of the time that made early flight possible. The fragile airframes of the early part of the war were almost entirely made from wooden frames that were held together with wire and covered in linen. Many industries on both sides of the conflict, including the furniture trade, turned their facilities and the skills of their craftsmen over to production of these new machines of war. Companies such as HH Martyn (below) who originally made the fixtures, fittings and furniture for luxury liners suddenly became aircraft manufacturers.

HH Martyn HH Martyn02

The learning curve was brutal and lessons were paid for in the lives of aircrew lost. The forces placed upon delicate flying surfaces were not well understood and lessons on the effects of both battle damage and weather on wood, glue, metal and fabric were painstakingly learned failure by failure.

Wing fail

Even as early as 1915 the technology had begun to mature with a reduction in the woodworking skills applied to  these fast-developing machines of war and an increase in repeatable industrialised processes. Where possible many joints applied to early Royal Aircraft Factory BE2c scouts were therefore reinforced with metal brackets (shown below) – a technique used by Allied aircraft manufacturers through to the war’s end and beyond.


The designers emlpoyed by the Central Powers took a different route: Ever innovative, the German Roland company’s D.VI featured a highly streamlined fuselage constructed from overlapping plywood ‘planks’ in a manner similar to ‘clinker built’ boats. In contrast the Albatros Flugzeugwerke began building what were effectively early wooden monocoque structures (below).

Albatros DI

Albatros D1 2

With the recent surge in interest due to the conflict’s centenary, the activities of many woodworkers who are bringing some of these fragile and dangerous machines back to life is being recognised. They range from lone woodworkers working in a garage to huge commercial operations.


Nick Caudwell in Australia (above) has spent nine years recreating a late war Sopwith Snipe from nothing but the period Sopwith drawings. Koloman Mayrhofer and Eberhard Fritsch have spent thousands of hours handcrafting the structure of an Albatros D.III (below, which flew for the first time in 2012).


Surely the most impressive of these efforts however is the operation put together by Sir Peter Jackson the film director who, due to his obsession with the period and vast resources has recreated many of the aircraft of the time through his company ‘The Vintage Aviator’ (TVAL).

Albatros DV

Mostly, the craftsmen who work at TVAL did not, like the lone builders before them, have anything other than the imperfect and often incomplete drawings of the machines of the time to go by. But, as a result of a huge effort, this endeavour is probably unique within the world aviation community due to the fact that it solely manufactures aircraft from the 1914-1918 period. TVAL work under strict Civil Aviation Authority mandates, codes and systems for their methods of construction and operation; Safety is paramount.

The TVAL staff has a great deal to be proud of; a state of the art manufacturing facility coupled with an ICAO Aircraft Manufacturing approval. These two remarkable achievements emphasize their commitment to engineering excellence and technical innovation. TVAL are using the most modern technology to reproduce the most accurate aircraft reproductions from a bygone era. I don’t often point at things outside of woodworking for furniture but the quality of the woodworking alone, as the photos show, is extremely high.


The war that began a century ago destroyed tens of millions of lives, ruined empires and bankrupted nations. Its brutal mechanisation and mass industrialisation also changed the course of art and damaged the craft tradition in many nations including that of woodworking. By 1918 aircraft 9and everything else were made to industrial processes in large scale factories rather than the workshops of 1914; The war halted any serious development of lyrical and  labour intensive design styles such as Art Nouveau as artists and designers replaced the natural forms of Art Nouveau with those that represented mechanisation and speed as Art Deco became ascendant.

Today I wanted to do two things: first to point at some of the incredible work being done by some really committed woodworkers that help us to remember the past but most importantly to remember all those who were caught up in the maelstrom of that dreadful summer a century ago.


– Paul Mayon

Pégas Skip Tooth Coping Saw Blades

Screen shot 2014-08-02 at 19.01.05

Making an Anarchist’s Tool Chest has been described in the past as a ‘dovetailing death march’ and, with over 100 dovetails in the average chest it can feel that way to the neophyte dovetailer.

There is a lot that practice, skill and confidence can do to reduce the amount of time required to make that many hand cut joints but last week, thanks to Matthew Platt of Workshop Heaven I finally found a tool that can make a huge time difference in cutting out waste.


High carbon steel Pegas skip tooth blades made in Switzerland by Scies Miniatures SA are the most fabulously aggresive blades I have experienced. Not only that; they are easy to steer close to the baseline and leave a very smooth finish compared to many coping saw blades. In ‘Stuff of Nightmares’ Southern Yellow Pine they left a glassy finish that required very little chopping in to finish the joint.  Thanks to Matthew I have tried the 9, 10 and 18 ppi skip tooth blades. I tried these in both a £8.00 Axminster ‘sale time special’ frame and  a fancy pants Knew Concepts red anodised aluminium frame.  Although you could tighten the blade up considerably more in the Knew Concepts saw the blade did a great job of transforming even the bargain basement Axminster frame into something that can take minutes off dovetailing time.

Frankly, I won’t use anything else in my coping saw from now. Do your dovetailing a favour and go and buy some from Workshop Heaven. A great find. Thanks Matt.

– Paul Mayon




The Axeman Cometh


If woodworking were ruled by Norse gods (and who says it isn’t?) Peter Follansbee would be Thor (or maybe Odin with that beard…but you get the point). He doesn’t carry a hammer; he carries a hatchet. And, if you have ever spent time in one of his classes, you will know how deft and precise Peter can be with that same tool to start creating the most stunning pieces of furniture from green wood.

That he can do this in front of a crowd whilst delivering tidy patter with wit drier than  about what he is doing is all the more remarkable.

C17-carved box

So DJ and I are really thrilled to let you know that Peter will be coming to the UK in summer 2015. He will be teaching a class on making a carved oak box like the one you see above ‘vis ze beeg axe and ze carving tools’. Luscious no? The great thing is that he shows how to start with a log, create a box and lay out the most sumptuous carving patterns with the simplest of tools and without measuring anything

Follansbee Hewing

Follansbee Planing

Follansbee Laying out

Follansbee Oak Pattern

And, if we are all really good I am told Uncle Peter will even read us all bedtime stories.


We will be announcing course timings and venue when we launch our new N.E.W. website in a couple of weeks. But be very sure that if you want to be part of this event you are going to have to be damned quick out of the blocks. We haven’t even advertised the course properly yet and we have already sold five places of those available (my nearest and dearest was No.1 on the list when she saw what we will be making). Are you on your marks?

Now where is my single bevel hatchet?…

– Paul Mayon