On my recent trip to Northern California I not only saw some things I hadn’t seen before, I also had the opportunity to meet some fascinating people. One of these was Kevin Drake, owner of Glen-Drake Toolworks. Kevin was an amiable host, leading me to the best local spots for breakfast and coffee.
Some of the favorite tools in the Popular Woodworking shop are made by Glen-Drake, notably the “Tite-Mark” marking gauge, and hammers. Kevin left previous careers as a musician and programmer to attend the College of the Redwoods in 1999. Then he began reinventing tools, and coming up with ingenious solutions to problems most of us take for granted. I’ve never been able to find a mallet I really liked (or one that really worked) until I picked up one of the Glen-Drakes.
That’s Kevin in the photo, and what looks like a hunk of firewood in his hand is, well a hunk of firewood. Unless, like Kevin, you can see that this piece of tan oak, which is native to the area, has the potential to be a great tool handle. It grows short and gnarly, and in an area known for giant redwoods it’s easy to see why this species would be ignored commercially. A member of the beech family, tan oak is something of a cross between Chestnut and Oak and this combination of qualities makes it an ideal hammer handle material.
In addition to having an inventive mind, Kevin is also an adept turner; he personally makes each wooden handle for his tools. Before my visit, I assumed that Glen-Drake was a bigger operation, and that there would be an automated machine with handle blanks being dropped from a hopper at one end of a machine and completed handles being spit out the other.
It only takes about a few minutes for Kevin to turn a handle, and while trying to take some photos I kept having to say “slow down.” He works almost exclusively with a skew chisel, and one of his “back burner” projects is the development of his own line of turning tools.
After splitting the log sections to rough size, Kevin turns them on the lathe. Because the wood is still fairly wet, the handles are turned bigger than they need to be, and then dried in -house.
Parts are stored on wire racks and in old egg cartons as they wait their turn in the kiln. The kiln itself is a simple box lined with rigid insulation and powered by a single light bulb. This keeps the temperature inside the box at 130Ã?Â°F. The open wire shelves allow air to circulate within the box, and the location of the light bulb at the bottom promotes circulation as warm air rises to the top of the box.
After leaving the kiln, parts are returned to the lathe. Turning is completed in several stages and some are further refined with a CNC router before being assembled with the brass heads. This personal attention makes for a tool that feels like a part of your hand and is a joy to use.
One of the things I enjoyed most about visiting with Kevin was the remarkable way that his mind works. Most of us accept the limitations of a tool or process, and learn to work around the shortcomings. Kevin questions those things and as a result has come up with remarkable new methods and tools.
In the picture at right are his File/Burnisher, the Tite-Mark marking gauge, a Tite-Hammer and a Chisel Hammer. These are tools we use in our shop and highly recommend.
There’s a worn spot on the floor at Glen-Drake Toolworks where Kevin stands as he develops new tools and methods for dovetailing. We’re looking forward to seeing the results.