Sunday, January 17, 2016

About a FROE...

A request came in a couple of weeks back via e-mail, concerning the possibility I could make a custom Froe.
I have taken Martin's original messages and cut it up a bit - to fit to a commentary here. I have also underlined a few aspects that I will be addressing below :

... I have a project in mind which is based on several videos I have seen on youtube.  The inspiration for the project came from several videos in which a small froe was use to split kindling.  The froe's featured has a blade length of less than 6 inches, and appeared to be somewhat older pieces, possibly reclaimed and repurposed.

Froes are typically not sharpened and so normally will not spit wood with ease.  However the ones I saw in the videos mentioned split wood quite easily.  This suggested to me they may have been slightly sharpened so as to allow the split to be started and completed with only a froe.  However I would be reluctant to sharpen a froe as it might render it useless for its intended purpose.  I recently bought a larger froe from Lee Valley Tools.  It works nicely when used as intended to extend a split.  However it will not start a split, and it's generally to big for making kindling from smaller stock.

After doing some research I discovered a blacksmith who hand forged a small froe from a railroad spike.  The finished piece did not have an eye, but rather had a metal handle drawn out from the main blade.  I have since found other videos featuring people making custom froes for various purposes.

Since seeing these videos I've started looking for a blacksmith who could make such a custom froe for me.  The object of the design would be to make something which is purpose built for making kindling from firewood of 6 inches or smaller.  Obviously I'd want something which had enough of a sharp edge to bite into the wood to being the split.  The edge profile would them be more typical of a traditional froe, widening out with a slight convex bevel.

As a point of reference here's links to the video's I referenced
The first video consists primarily of the good trick of using a rubber bicycle tire to hold the splitted wood together. Do note that he is in England - and is using some very clear grained (willow?) for the splitting. Not going to work as well with the kind of pine or spruce you would get here in Ontario!
The second video?
That guy is not making a froe at all.
It is a simple heavy rail spike knife being used like a small froe. Honestly, I don't think it belongs in this conversation at all.

When I worked at Black Creek Pioneer Village (and other historic sites) I have had opportunity to examine and use a number of artifact tools. Over the years I have also made a few froes myself.

For the reader - a FROE is a tool used primarily for splitting thin planks off a prepared block of timber. It has a heavy, straight blade, ending with a loop on one end. A wooden handle is set into this loop, so the handle runs at right angles to the blade. In use the blade normally extends past the wood block to be cut, allowing the top of the thick blade to be struck with a wooden mallet (typically). This forces the blade down through the wood, splitting off the plank. Some direction to the cutting can be provided by levering the handle, but primarily the lever action simply splits along the existing grain. The most common use of the tool in Settlement Era is for making wood shingles (cedar normally here in Ontario). To that end, the more typical size is a blade running more like 12 - 16 inches long. Usually the bar is quite heavy, 2 inches plus wide by 3/8 thick. I have seen 'miniature' froes, in the size range of 6 inch blade, used for splitting out arrow shafts.

the Froe offered by Gransfors *
Hand Forged by Gransfors - from their product description

The Lee Valley Froe - from their web site
 The full description of the Lee Valley Froe

Some comments related to the original e-mail:

- A froe should be *sharp*. This not only to allow the start of the cut, but also to allow it to potentially slice through the grain when making longer cuts to control direction and depth. (I once saw a guy at Colonial Williamsburg make 12 inch wide by 8 foot long clap boards - just with a froe!)
- Commercial tools are not normally shipped sharp. This for safety and packaging. The user should be putting a final sharpening to the 'mill' edge. This also goes for any antique tools purchased almost always.

- A 'hollow ground' / concave grind would be incorrect for a working froe. As you certainly know, a froe is designed with one side flat, the other side having the diagonal slope to the cutting edge. This means the tool is set up for either right or left handed use(or cut from the front of a block / cut from the back of a block). Ideally the back of the blade is kept quite thick, I'd suggest 1/4 inch as a bare minimum, perhaps thicker depending on other measurements. The length of the bevel from bar thickness to cutting edge is relatively short (a pronounced chisel edge). This allows a sharp edge, with strength to leaver the split provided by the thick back part of the tool.
The inexpensive Lee Valley tool actually has the bevel in the *centre* of the blade. Likely this has been done to allow for left or right hand use. The down side is that this certainly effects the overall performance of the tool. It is reasonably effective for a simple split - but not able to cut across the developing grain to control depth and direction of the cut. (So fine for making simple shingles - if you have dead straight and even grain in your wood block.)
I actually have one of these here in my shop - purchased from Lee Valley.

- Using a rail spike is (at best) a kind of a blacksmith trick. It would simply not provide enough mass to make a really effective tool of any size (unless you were making arrows or something like that diameter). The metal is not really hard enough (1035 carbon typically) to hold an edge, only being slightly harder than plain mild steel stock.

- The simplest (most likely) construction for an effective froe is using a 1045 middle carbon spring steel. Larger froes (for shingles for example) are best made of a length of leaf spring material.
- You could consider using a simple layered construction (high carbon core with mild steel sides to support), but given how the tool is used, this complexity is not required.
- The traditional design has one end of the flat bar looped over and forge welded to itself to form the eye. On some antique tools you also see a simple rivet securing the loop, this is not as strong as a properly executed forge weld (although certainly  faster, less skill involved).
The Lee Valley version uses an even faster modern method - an inert gas weld the cutting bar on to a pipe fitting. A one piece blade to handle would certainly be possible, this is not done traditionally due to the expense (then) of the metal itself. (Wood handles are cheap - and replaceable)

Do note that I can not possibly compete with the cost of the Lee Valley tool, made offshore and using modern industrial mass production techniques. 
Note that this is not a criticism of this specific tool.
'You get what you pay for' - and at the cost of roughly $60 CDN, this is actually a fair balance of cost against quality. (Remember I said that I had actually bought one of these myself.)

* I consider Gransfors-Bruk of Sweden the best single point of reference for anyone inquiring about hand forged quality tools. This company makes exceptional quality (I have purchased tools from their product line in the past). They are using forged techniques, although I would quibble a bit about 'hand' in the description. Primarily they have set up for power hammers using specially shaped and designed pattern dies. Hand work is only in the final finishing. This investment allows them huge time savings and also excellent consistency.
Their cost for the specific tool seen above is roughly $160 US (reference)

1 comment:

Sean Valdrow said...

Mr M.,

Your remarks on froes overall are highly accurate. I would like to add that Roy Underhill demonstrates the use of the froe in many of his episoedes of the Woodwright's Shop. His froes vary in design, depending upon the intended use. The one he most commonly used was steeply wedge shaped compared to the Lee Valley tool.

Froes are for splitting wood, not necessarily just shingles. The very small ones are sold as basket maker's froes, and may still be obtained by specialist dealer such as

I have one very much like the Leel Valley tool. I am disappointed in it. It bent the first time I used it on green birchwood. The socket was crudely made from a piece of pipe flared out and arc welded to the blade. I do not see arc welds on the Lee Valley tool, but the socket appears very much like mine. And I believe the bevel of the tool is incorrectly ground, that a single bevel is best.

Had I to forge one of these, I'd punch an eye in heavy stock of medium carbon steel, and then draw out the blade. That eye really needs the strength for the times when you must use the handle to lever the wood apart.


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