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Learn How. Discover Why. Build Better. - Christopher Schwarz


The Sudden (to us) Success of Daed Toolworks by Christopher Schwarz.  Copyright 2011.  Originally appeared in the Fine Tool Journal

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While it might look like this toolmaker came out of nowhere, he was working for years behind the scenes before going public.

Toolmakers – like monkeys – tend to evolve.

Most toolmakers begin their careers with tools that function well but then are refined to visual perfection after years of building them. My first Veritas block plane, for example, looks nothing like the latest ones. When the Canadian company started making block planes, their tools worked well. But were not as finely detailed as they are now.

Same goes for Lie-Nielsen Toolworks. Early planes from this Maine company don’t have the same crispness of recent ones. Individual makers also tend to get better over time. Ron Brese, Wayne Anderson, Matt Bickford and so many others began their businesses with tools that looked good and worked great. And after years of work, their tools look gorgeous and perform even better.

The bridge on this Daed Toolworks miter plane is Raney Nelson's design.

(photo courtesy of Father John Abraham.)


That’s not quite the case with Raney Nelson, founder of Daed Toolworks. To the outside observer it might look like Nelson emerged fully formed from the toolmaking womb. His tools withstand a high level of scrutiny, and they perform as well as any highly tuned plane I’ve used.

Nelson took a different route to starting his toolmaking business. He made about 40 infill planes before he decided his product was good enough to show or sell to the public. During these years of development he sought out opinions on his designs from other toolmakers and picky high-end woodworkers.

And he was determined to come up with his own designs for tools instead of making direct copies of historical models or those made by other modern toolmakers.

His self-imposed difficult path to becoming a toolmaker has paid off, in my opinion. When I first saw his tools at Woodworking in America in 2010, I thought they looked like the product of a toolmaker who had been at it for years (because he had - it had just been in private). I immediately ordered a miter plane from him.

I’m not alone in my affection for his designs. During this past summer I’ve been carrying my miter plane and a coffin smoother from Daed Toolworks all over the country while I teach woodworking classes. Students openly covet them. Other instructors ask detailed questions about them. The marketing manager at Lie-Nielsen Toolworks set them up on a bench to take photos of them for herself.

Here you can see all the detailing on this boxwood miter plane.  The profile of the wedge
and the ogee detail on the sidewalls caught my eye at Woodworking in America.
(photo courtesy of Father John Abraham.)

So where did Raney Nelson and Daed Toolworks come from? I know that the question is a cheesy “History Channel”-like way to get into a personal narrative, but it’s where I wanted to begin when I interviewed him about his work and his business.

First off, what kind of name is “Raney?”

“I was born in 1968 to semi-hippies,” Nelson says. “They were just hippy-ish enough to name me Raney. Honestly, there are three completely different stories about the name’s origin, none of which make a shred of sense; I think they just liked the sound of it. Plus my dad hated having the world’s most common name – John – so he made sure we all got offbeat names.”

Speaking of offbeat names, there’s also the name of his company: Daed Toolworks. It’s pronounced “dead,” and Nelson dodged the question about what the heck it means.

“Why not print: ‘Nelson is oddly evasive about the origin of the name, which reportedly has something to do with a high school misreading of Hamlet – but he unfailingly pronounces it 'dead,' " Nelson says.

While Nelson was indirect about etymology, he was happy to talk about making tools and the single event that launched him into becoming a toolmaker.

Nelson began woodworking with his father, who really liked buying and rebuilding houses. He also liked building furniture for the house.

Raney also makes these great little plane-adjusting hammers
that have one brass head and one from rawhide.
(photo courtesy of Father John Abraham.)

“I grew up doing carpentry and building furniture using 1x3s and chipboard,” Nelson says. “I hesitate to call it fine woodworking, but I was always really proud that my father made our own furniture, and it gave me a real love for the act of making things, especially useful things.”

Nelson was a rebellious teen-ager, joined the Navy for six years and then landed at Portland State University studying physics, semiotics and literary criticism. At first he planned on becoming a professor, despite the fact that he looks most comfortable while wearing a baseball cap - not a tweed jacket.

“I kind of ran out of steam,” he says, “and I began to hate academia.”

After school he taught for a few years and then landed a public relations job about 10 years ago working for a small independent firm that consulted to about a dozen different audio and home theater manufacturers. He also was getting into woodworking.

“It’s a common story. We were shopping for furniture and it made me want to vomit,” he says. “So we picked up used furniture off the street instead. Paying $600 for something I hate seemed stupid. I’d rather spend nothing for something I hated.”

As he got deeper into the craft he started to use more and more hand tools. And then came the moment that changed the course of his working life: He saw one of Konrad Sauer’s coffin infill planes. “It is hard to explain it,” Nelson says. “I had to have one. But we’d had our first kid so there was no way I could spend that kind of disposable income on a plane.”

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