Chris Schwarz's Blog

Winding Sticks with Better Visibility

My new winding sticks – walnut with maple inlay.

Winding sticks don’t have to be fancy. Heck, they don’t even need to be anything other than two pieces of material that have parallel edges – that’s all you need to use these sticks to diagnose a twisted board or assembly.

But I have a weakness for nice winding sticks, and they are a fun exercise for the beginning hand-tool woodworker.

My old winding sticks made from redheart with a single maple inlay.

For years I used winding sticks made of redheart where one of the sticks had a single inlaid full-length strip of maple. These have always worked fine, but a couple weeks ago I bought some vintage winding sticks from Ed Lebetkin, who runs the old tool store above Roy Underhill’s school.

They cost more than two sticks of wood should, but I liked their proportions and the fact that they had two satinwood inlays. So I bought them to study and compare them to other designs. (And my parents still wonder why I didn’t have many friends as a child.)

Vintage winding sticks I purchased from Ed Lebetkin's tool shop.

After using the vintage sticks a bit, I made my own version out of quartersawn walnut with maple inlays. I have to say that I find it much easier to see the twist in a board when I view it with winding sticks that have two separate inlays instead of one long inlay. Why? Don’t know. It might be my imagination, but I’m sure woodworker and eye doctor Rob Porcaro could offer an explanation or a rebuttal.

In any case, here are some dimensions and details on these winding sticks, in case you want to make your own just like them. No, I won’t be making a SketchUp file.

Vintage Winding Sticks: These are made from quartersawn mahogany that is 7/16” x 2” 17-1/2”. Each stick is a right triangle in cross-section that tapers down to 3/16” at the top. The satinwood inlays are the thickness of veneer and are 5/16” wide and 2-1/2” long. The inlays are positioned 2” from each end of the stick.

My Winding Sticks: These are made from quartersawn walnut that is 5/8” x 1-1/2” 24” – I sized them to fit inside my tool chest. Each stick is a right triangle in cross-section that tapers down to 1/4” at the top. The maple inlays are 1/16” thick by 1/4” wide and 2-1/2” long. The inlays are positioned 2” from each end of the stick.

I’ve seen other designs winding stick designs that use triangular-shaped inlays and even round dots of different diameters. If you think you have the ultimate design, let us know.

— Christopher Schwarz

I discuss winding sticks in detail in “Handplane Essentials” and “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest.” You’ll also find an excellent discussion in Robert Wearing’s “The Essential Woodworker.” All these books are available at ShopWoodworking.com

10 thoughts on “Winding Sticks with Better Visibility

  1. woddawg

    Geo. Ellis in “Modern Practical Joinery” says, “Winding Sticks are made of two thoroughly dry and straight-grained pieces of hardwood, such as Spanish mahogany, rosewood, or black walnut, inlaid with bone or white holly. They are generally made by the joiner himself, as they are not stocked at the tool shops.” He goes into “full particulars” later in the book, and says, “These are two parallel strips of hardwood about 16 in. long, 1-3/4 in. wide, 3/8 in. thick at the lower edges, and 1/8 in at the upper.” He has a pencil drawing of the winding stick, and what appears to be two inlays close to the ends of the top edge, with a dovetail shape, maybe 2 in. long, 3/8 in. wide.

    I have some scrap black walnut I bought off eBay a decade ago. I might make a set and pin them as well to keep together when not in use.

  2. andersoncustom@gmail.com

    A little birdie told me that Woodpeckers is going to announce a new One Time Tool next week, and it’s going to be aluminum winding sticks.Even if they have to be trued, aluminum probably planes easier than some woods.

  3. Kim M

    I agree with the difference in ease of visibility. Chris had both sets of sticks at the class he taught at the Atlanta Woodcraft, and I was in the class to personally see the difference. I think the short sections of the contrasting wood help to isolate it when you are sighting down the sticks. In the class I made a set of the sticks with continuous strip design, and will be making another set with the short strip design soon.

    comment to JWatriss – by design, winding sticks ARE straight edges on the top and bottom surfaces. At least that’s true of the designs that Chris was writing about. They’re just not the 30″ or so of length that you would probably want for a straightedge.

  4. MHomer

    hey chris interested in selling those winding sticks ? Ive been trying to find an old vintage pair of winding sticks, or if you know any where i can get a pair Ive been looking all over the internet and no luck, suggestions will be much appreciated.

  5. metalworkingdude

    Interesting, and nice.

    For comparison, Rob Cosman’s winding sticks have the inlay at the ends, each corner is inlaid with a triangle. It would be a lot simpler to fit the inlay that way, it’s just one inside edge to fit to, the two outer edges of the corner can be flushed up easily.

    His also have a dot in the center, which helps get them centered in narrow stock. And I believe they are pinned to nest together for storage – at least that’s what he shows in his videos.

    Personally I use two 24″ pieces of 1″ square Aluminum bar stock, mostly because I had a 48″ length of it laying around.

    But, still, sounds like a fun project. It’s on the list.

  6. JWatriss

    Like I wasn’t distraction-prone already this morning…

    Yeah, I have a refinement.

    Drill two holes, one at each end. Dowels through each, glued into one of the sticks. The idea is to index them to each other. Plane the top edge straight, and hold the sticks edge to edge to check for straightness, and correct as necessary.

    Now you have winding sticks AND straight edges.

    1. Dean

      I think Chris was wanting to point out that the lower rear angle (bottom to back) is 90 degrees or a right angle. A “right triangle” comes easily to mind for most of us when wanting to describe a 90 deg. angle.

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