Tiny Tool Treasure

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Words and photos: Ian Wilkie

For the first time in more than 30 years, I decided to enter a competition – the ‘Tiny Treasures’ section of the Wootha Prize associated with the Maleny Wood Expo. I reckoned a set of miniature working tools should qualify as ‘treasures’ (at least to some). So I set out to make a set of one-third to half scale that are fairly faithful working copies of tools you might find in a late 19th century cabinetmaker’s chest.


I started with a couple of bench planes; a panel plane modelled on an old Spiers, and a copy of a Norris A5 (minus the patent adjuster). With dimensions reduced by a half, the tools are actually one-eight the volume of their ‘parents’, which makes them look smaller than you might expect (photo 1).

The infill wood is ‘western rosewood’ (Acacia rhodoxylon), which I also used for most of the other tools. This finely grained wood makes a good substitute for the rosewoods (Dalbergia spp.) favoured for tool handles in the past. It takes a beautiful finish, but is a little more brittle than any Dalbergia I’ve encountered. Both planes work very nicely although the tiny handles aren’t comfortable for long planing sessions!

Whilst a little fiddly, the bench planes were not too difficult to make, so I set myself a bigger (smaller?) challenge, a tiny chariot plane loosely based on a Norris #28. With a low angle, bevel- up plane, the sole has to be split and re-joined to achieve a fine mouth.


Typically, either a ‘V’ or a tongue and groove joint is used to register the two parts when fitting to the sides, but I was not confident I could cut such a tiny joint accurately in the 3mm thick stainless steel used for the sole. Instead, I glued the two pieces together with superglue, which held them firmly enough while I set out the dovetails. Once assembled and the dovetails peened closed, the sole is solidly fixed by the sides and the lack of a mechanical joint between the two parts of the sole doesn’t matter. Despite its diminutive size (photo 2), this plane has a sweet action and is quite useable.


The next plane in the series is a half- sized replica of an old rosewood and boxwood Sandusky plough-plane I’ve owned for many years. I took a few liberties with the model; I cut the threads of the fence-arms coarser than exact scale dictates because I thought they would have been too fine and fragile. I also made the screws for the depth-stop and its locking screw a little fatter than exact scale, to make them more robust, but otherwise it is faithful to the original (photo 3).

The fence nuts are made from kamala (Mallotus sp.), a common dry-rainforest species with a white, fine-grained wood that makes a good substitute for traditional boxwood. The decorative tips on the fence arms are vegetable ivory. This plane is very easy to hold and use despite its small size.


No self-respecting cabinetmaker in 1890 would be without an infill shoulder-plane (photo 4), and neither would they wish to be without a spokeshave and router shown below in photo 5.


The router is the only tool with a factory-made blade, the Veritas mini-router blade just happened to be a perfect fit. All other blades were made in-house from various tool steel scraps.


Of course some saws are a must (photo 6). A turning saw and backsaw consistent with late 19th century styles and a half- sized copy of a Disston D8 panel saw. The latter is toothed as a 12tpi rip saw, and is quite comfortable to use (with a two-finger grip).


A set of layout tools is essential. The mortise, pin, and cutting gauges, scratch awl and marking knife, are species of Casuarina, and the try square and bevel gauge are western rosewood (photo 7). The dovetail marker has a 1:6 blade on one side and a 1:9 on the other.


Equally essential are a selection of chisels (photo 8). I made a sash mortise set (5mm, 3mm and 1.6mm with crows ash handles) and bevel-edged set (10, 6, and 3mm with kamala handles). My smithing skills are rudimentary and the bevelled blades are a little crude, but I managed to get the hardening and tempering close to the sweet spot and they all take and hold a good edge.

Chisels need a mallet, of course, and this is another area where I came up against the limitations of working strictly to scale. I made a mallet that was half the dimensions of my favourite mallet, but it was too light to be useful, so I fudged things a bit and made the head substantially larger than half-scale. It’s still a rather gentle persuader, but quite enough for the little chisels. The brass hammer beside the mallet in the chest is the ‘adjuster’ for the planes.


The final tool I tackled is a brace, made to resemble a Marples Ultimatum brace (photo 9). This is the least ‘accurate’ model because the Ultimatum has a cast metal frame and its wooden bits are merely infill.

Casting brass is well beyond my facilities so I made a wooden frame reinforced with metal. The brace itself has a rather small throw but is quite functional, though the chuck I made is not holding the bits as securely as I’d like. I will re-visit that in due course.


To present the tools I made a small campaign style chest from some cedar (Toona ciliata) rescued from a very old, partly decayed external door, using the mini tools as much as practicable. The cedar was dusty and crumbly which made cutting the joints a nightmare, so there are a couple of less than perfect dovetails. The slight gap on the right side of the lid is caused by the spring catch that locks the drawer when closed – I need to find a weaker spring (photo 10). The interior partitions and tool holders are camphor laurel and the saw retaining cleats are jacaranda.

Closed, the chest measures 400mm wide x 235mm deep x 240mm high. The dividers and tool holders are made from camphor laurel, and the saw retaining cleats are jacaranda.


One final touch is the box made from a scrap of scented rosewood for a slip of natural Arkansas stone that fits the scale perfectly. The little router did a great job when inlaying the gum leaves (photo 11).

The end of the story is not quite as I hoped; just as I was applying the finishing touches I found out the 2022 show had been cancelled thanks to covid. Ah well, it was a fun project, and several of the tools have the potential to be very useful – especially in the making of small tools!

Ian Wilkie lives in Brisbane and was once a veterinary pathologist, all the while a keen woodworker, and possibly an
even keener hand toolmaker. Ian has written several stories for Wood Review magazine.

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