My New 150-year-old Try Square
While deep into dovetailing a small chest at the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking this summer, my concentration was suddenly burst by someone at my workbench.
“There’s a guy outside,” the student says, “and he’s selling all his woodworking stuff.”
I nodded and then returned to my dovetails. I run into people all the time trying to sell me their woodworking gear – curiously it almost always involves a Shopsmith. And the last thing I’m in the market for are tools (see “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest”).
A few minutes later another student approached my bench and said the guy had some “crazy wood” and was retiring from his career as a luthier.
OK. I put down my tools.
The newly minted “retiree” was probably 25 years old and was pulling out tools and slabs of wood and depositing them on the school’s picnic tables. For the most part, nothing coming out of his van did anything but make me feel sad – sad for the craft and this unusual guy.
He asked Bob Van Dyke, the director of the school, if he could hang out and sell his stuff. Bob looked over the tools, picked out a few things for himself and agreed.
I went back to my dovetails.
That afternoon the retired luthier showed up at my workbench with a couple pieces of wood and asked me to take a look. They didn’t look promising. Both small slabs had met with disaster on the band saw. They were barrel-shaped, probably from an under-tensioned blade. And they varied in thickness from 1/8” to 7/8” in points.
Firewood, I thought.
But then he said the two magic words: huon pine.
This slow-growing tree (Lagarostrobos franklinii) is found in Tasmania, Australia, and is as rare and expensive as they come. It was over-harvested because of its amazing physical properties and is now a protected and expensive species. Even the shavings are sold for their intoxicating smell or bug-deflecting properties.
One of the students had grown up in Australia and I asked him to confirm that this stuff was huon pine. After a close inspection, he said he was certain that it was.
How much? The guy wanted $20. Before he could take another breath I had my wallet out.
That slab of huon has sat in my wood rack since the summer, awaiting inspiration. This morning, I looked over the slab and made a few measurements. This board, which easily took 400 years to grow, was going to become a Roubo try square.
The thick parts will be the stock. The thin parts will become the blade. I went to work with a handsaw, jointer plane and my band saw.
Within a minute the shop filled with the most intoxicating scent I’ve encountered in the craft. It’s a bit spicy, but there’s more to it – think well-worn leather in an old bookstore.
After shaping the blade before lunch, I counted the growth rings on the 2-5/8”-wide blade and stopped after 150.
When I finish uploading this blog entry I’m going to go down and complete the stock. Then glue it together. But I don’t want to mask the smell with a film finish. So I’m going to use a little paste wax. After the wax’s smell fades, I’m told the smell of huon pine will return again. And then I can always have a little bit of that smell close at hand in my shop.
— Christopher Schwarz
The Roubo Try Square is one of my favorite projects to build when I have a little time and some interesting wood. You can find the plans for the square in the February 2010 issue of Popular Woodworking, or you can download the expanded plans from ShopWoodworking.com here.