Mitre Boxes and Saws: An Accidental Collection

My collection of saws and boxes

Mitre boxes are an essential tool for using hand tools – they’re a cheap way to cut straight angles with accuracy. Depending on the kind you have they can be incredibly versatile way to speed up your accuracy and work-rate.

Older ones made with metal and adjustment knobs show up in flea markets and thrift stores all the time – they aren’t very recognizable to most and can usually be picked up on the cheap. I have a few; here’s my collection!

1. Husky and Home Depot

Husky saw and home depot box

My first real woodworking purchase was this Husky backsaw from Canadian Tire and a cheapo mitre box from Home Depot. I didn’t like any of the saws included in the box + saw packages, and I’m glad I bought them separately because I still use the saw for all kinds of things. Both box and saw have really thin kerfs, and I still pull the box out every now and then for certain cuts.

2. Draper

Draper mitre saw

The next one I got was this Draper monstrosity that I picked up at a flea market. In concept it’s an amazing saw, and with a few repairs it could be again, but it’s not aged well. It’s a size that really doesn’t exist anymore, so finding a new blade either means overpaying for a new one or cutting down a longer one. There’s also the plastic they used to direct the saw: no level of lube can replace how poorly they work, and it gets stuck way too much during cut. I hope to repair it eventually, because it is really solid and I can adjust the angle by single degrees.

3. Stanley

Stanley mire saw and box

Next one was this cheapo Stanley set I found in an ex’s lobby. The handle’s awful, but the saw cuts like a dream. It has a thicker and faster kerf than my other backsaw, so I use this saw a lot when doing multiple cuts. The box is… fine I guess?

4. Stanley Handyman

Stanley Handyman

This is probably the last mitre box I’ll ever buy. I picked it up at The Sunshine Coast Healthcare Auxiliary Thrift Shore, for the absurd price of $2.50. On top of that, it came screwed down to a massive slab of reclaimed cedar. I’ve removed it and made some holes in my work bench to lock it down, and it’s the one I use most.

Stanley details

It’s adjustable at 15 degree increments and fits any type of saw. The red flap can be loosened and tightened to accommodate different saw widths. On top of that, it has the easiest stop block system I’ve ever used. The same knob that control the angle controls the height, and the blade holder will stop mitre saws as soon as it hits the top of the saw.

Stanley #4: Rite of Passage?

Picture of Stanley #4 on a vice

Every woodworker seems to have a vintage Stanley #4 bench plane, or one of the new Veritas planes that use a similar construction. I wanted one, especially since my first bench plane was a very cheap off-brand something that was… Not good. But when I got to the point where I could set it up properly it worked pretty well, I came across a beat-up Stanley #4 for $8 at a flea market and it was time to see the difference!

Plane planing wood

I used my usual process of vinegar+salt, steel brush, baking soda, and alcohol to get rid of the rust. From there they were covered in oil. For the wooden knobs I used mineral spirits to clean them, then hand-sanded and finished with Tung oil and beeswax. There was a chunk missing from the rear handle that I was going to fix with some walnut, but I didn’t because it wasn’t interfering with functionality.

I put it back together (poorly at first!), adjusted all the things that weren’t on my other plane, and I’m a total convert. The blade lasts for ages, and the adjustability makes it so much more versatile. In hindsight I’m glad to have had the other plane to learn more about honing and setup, but I don’t think I’ve used it since.

Picture of Stanley #4 on a vice

Hand Drill: Stanley Tools at Habitat for Humanity’s Restore

Stanley Hand Drill

My favourite place for vintage tools is Habitat for Humanity‘s Restore shop in Sechelt, British Columbia. The staff is super friendly, and the selection for tools is just amazing! If you ever find yourself in town, I recommend you check out the store.

I had a choice of six Stanelys, of different makes and models, all at $10 – never thought choosing would be part of my quest for a perfect hand drill! I chose a reversible one with a nice chuck, minimal rust, and nice wood. From there it was taking everything apart and de-rusting in vinegar and salt for a couple of days (I couldn’t remove the middle wood, so that area was wrapped in plastic). Then a scrub with a steel brush, resetting the PH with some baking soda, and finally wiping down everything with alcohol to get rid of excess liquid.

Grain on handle

For the wood pieces I did a scrub with mineral spirits to remove the paint and grime, then hand-sanded and wet-sanded to 600-grit with Tung oil. Seeing the finish and getting reminded of the history of vintage tools always amazes me.

Stanley Hand Drill

To finish I got all the metal pieces covered in oil, lubricated anything that needed lubrication, and screwed it all back together.

Shooting Board: Adding Accuracy to Hand Tools

Shooting board being used to plane maple

One of the tools I always suggest for anyone using hand tools is a shooting board. In its most basic form it lets you hand plane wood to perfect square, and with a few more steps you can add things like a bench hook for surface planing, and any number of options for cutting/planing mitres.

My shooting board

My shooting board is really ugly and in need of repair, but it’s the basic form of one with a bench hook. The lip on the bottom pushes against the front of your work bench so you can use the top’s lip as a second hand. The bottom of mine is covered in leather scraps to make things a bit quieter.

Shooting board angles

Construction needs a few perfect 90 degree angles. Plywood is great because you can buy it with those angles (I got mine at a craft store), and it won’t lose its shape over time. As you see above mine are no longer at 90 degrees, but to fix that I just need to re-plane those areas so it’s a quick and easy repair. A lot of people recommend a slight angle on the plane side, and you can see why on the right picture. The top tends to go first, and the angle will extend its life.

Hatchet: Using Mistakes to Your Advantage

Hatchet handle

I picked up this hatchet for $5 at a Flea Market with the intention to replace its rubber handle with one made from wood. I have a bunch of reclaimed British Columbia barn wood, and was going to use some of the termite-infested Oak I used for my Demolition Hammer, but it literally exploded in my hands while boring the hole; hilarious, but not helpful.

Choice #2 was some Cedar that had a beautiful and sappy knot at the end. Bored the holes, cut the mitres to accommodate the shaft curve, and then realized I made a mistake with the angles. No problem, I just recut them; but then realized I didn’t actually make a mistake and had fixed it into a mistake. Long story story, by the time things were ready the go the knot had popped out a bit, I had to swap pieces on the shaft, rebuild the knot with epoxy, and added a scrap piece of walnut to the top because it wasn’t long enough.

The shaping and finishing was really fun. There were some curves in the wood grain that helped sculpt the shape, and the amount of different textures made finishing really interesting. By the end of it, the mistakes became my favourite parts:

  • the feel of the Cedar is much better suited for this tool than the Oak
  • cutting too much off to resolve my “mistake” with the mitres gave an amazingly contrast at the curve, and adding the walnut to the top gives a visual stop point and makes choking up more comfortable
  • the knot exploding actually let me use a lot more of that wood, and the epoxy made finishing that part into something comfortable for heavy chops a lot nicer
  • I think it looks amazing

hatchet

Demolition Hammer: Full-Tang Termites

Demolition hammer

I had this hammer lying around, and I thought it was a perfect way to experiment with a new wood. My reclaimed British Columbia barn lumber stash has a bunch of Oak that’s ravaged by termites which died years ago. The result is an incredibly hard wood on the grain, and basically sawdust where the rest of the wood used to be. My idea was to do a full-tang wrap with wooden dowels, and use enough glue and finish to turn the remaining termite-dust into something stable.

3 stages of the hammer

After getting everything cut and carved, the bottom basically disintegrated. Amazingly I had some scrap alley Cedar that just needed one straight cut before it fit directly in. I glued everything together and moved on to designing the shape of the handle.

Pics of shaping

That Oak is awful to work with! I constantly would go to chisel out a small bit, only to have something collapse into dust. I wasn’t about to stabilize it at this point, so I thought for a bit and realized I could work with the gaps instead of against them.

After a basic shaping, I finished the rest by wet-sanding from 60 grit with Danish Oil (1:1:1 Linseed Oil:Solvent:Polyurethane) and rubbing the excess slurry into the gaps. By the time I finished at 600 grit and a couple of days cure time it was completely stable, and all of the sharp points of the gaps had been sanded smooth. I buffed it with some beeswax paste wax, and the result is a surprisingly high-grip hammer with a soft finish.

Close up of finish

Flush Cut Saw

Flush cut saw

I have a list of tools that I want, but don’t need; basically things I’d use occasionally, but not enough to justify buying them. From there I just pay more attention when I’m at flea markets and thrift stores, or eventually get to a point where I’ve “needed” it enough to justify buying a new one. A flush cut saw is on the list, but so is a double-edged Japanese saw, so buying a new flush cut saw is pretty much off the table for me.

Design Process

Growing up poor, I learned a lot about how to fix things and use what I already had to make new things. Last time I found myself needing a flush cut saw I looked around and grabbed a spare hacksaw blade – it worked great! Suddenly I had a flush cut saw and a very simple need: protect my hand from the blade by making a handle.

Handle Selection

I had a nice-looking piece of wood that was handle-sized, and there was a neat little bump at one end that would keep my hand from sliding off, so now I had a blade and a handle: I needed a way to attach them.

Borrowing from Knife-Making

I make knives: typically it involves inserting a blade into a handle and attaching it with metal pins and glue. Hacksaw blades have holes in both ends, and that’s what made the design for me: I realized I could hide half of the blade in the handle and bolt it from the bottom, letting me use each blade twice. I made a kerf down the handle, drilled a hole for the bolt, and gave it a “dry” assembly: all good!

Functional Aesthetics

The one thing left was a non-temporary way to hold the blade in the kerf. A hose clamp worked, but really distracted from the look and didn’t “feel” right. It also needed a shim to cover the ~2mm of space in the kerf. The wood is fallen forest wood, the bottom bolt is a bit big, the blade was 19c: it was developing into something very charming and functional, and a hunk of steel at the end wasn’t the right design decision. My design need had changed from the functional “protect my hand” to the aesthetic “finish the theme with elegance,” and it let me switch from “use what I have” to “use the right thing.”

With metal and glue out of the picture, tape not even an option, I grabbed some twine. It would fill the kerf and create the pressure needed to keep the blade in place, I could easily remove it, and it felt “right.” As a bonus it doubled as grip. I thought about how I needed to knot things and made a video, changing my mind on how to string it up after I hit the record button.

It works a lot better than expected so I couldn’t be happier. I think it looks great and fits in with tools I’ve made, and the twine’s added grip makes it feel really good in my hand. I finished up the project I was working on and added it to my tool collections – flush cut saw was now off the list!

The Aftermath

I used it quite often over the next few days – the flexibility of the blade was perfect for something I was working on so I used it more as a flexible saw than a flush cut.

I didn’t design a flexible saw. It broke.

Broken saw

Redesigning and Moving On

The blade breaking wasn’t surprising. Looking at where it broke, it’s pretty obvious it was my fault for making it flex so much. Having a flexible saw was unexpectedly handy, so I think flush cut is going back on the list. I’ll be getting a stronger blade and rounding the area where it inserts into the handle to accommodate movement.

The value I got from this project was huge; 19c for the amount of work I did is tremendous. I learned a lot about the required structure for a flush cut saw, and unexpectedly learned how to make a flexible saw. I get to add twine as a functional design element to my series of hand-made tools. None of the parts I made broke, so it’s positive reinforcement. And as a final silver lining, making the video was a ton of fun!