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Tools from Zimbabwe: These tools have truly travelled the world

Sweden(?)...Germany… Australia… Zimbabwe… South Africa… USA. Where to next??

Beautiful heirloom quality Dastra tools
Your grandchildren's inheritance?
I obtained these 1,000 or so woodcarving and ice carving tools through an unusual trade with a Zimbabwean refugee. The story of Zimbabwe is a sad one, starting its period of independence from Britain with hope and great intentions, being the breadbasket of central and east Africa, with great legal and education systems, good telecoms, banking, transport and manufacturing sectors.

Endemic corruption and nepotism, under the freedom-fighter-turned-despot Robert Mugabe has slowly destroyed this fantastic country though, leading to massive devaluation of their currency – the Zimbabwean dollar (this is why some tools have prices of $8000+ on them).

I used to source wood from Zimbabwe (Kiaat and Rhodesian teak amongst others) and made many friends and enjoyed visiting the beautiful country on biannual trips and enjoyed the magnificent scenery and wildlife, not to mention the spectacular Victoria Falls.

I had sold some secondhand woodworking machines to a contact, John Cochrane, whose family had extensive steel, brick and manufacturing interests in pre-independence Rhodesia. Sadly, as Zimbabwe deteriorated into ruin, John had to leave as a near-refugee – with his wife doing caring work in England to bring in some income. One of the last deals John and I did was to trade some venerable 50 year old Wadkin and Robertson woodworking machines for these superb hand forged Dastra chisels.

John told me he inherited the machines from a business deal that had gone wrong on Australia in the early 1980s. As part of the new woodworking boom a group of investors had set up a company to distribute woodworking tools to the Aussies. Unfortunately they found out to their cost that the Aussies preferred beer and TV to woodwork, so the venture never really took off. For his shareholding John got the Dastra chisels.

In his time John was a great entrepreneur supplying the likes of Garrett Wade (New York) and Axminster Power Tools (in the UK) with superb solid Rhodesian teak workbenches. He now runs an import export business in Cape Town, South Africa.

The David Strasmann Company is tightlipped about their specially formulated steel they use for their hand forged carving chisels but I am guessing that they use the finest Swedish iron ore as a base before adding their special alloys??

Where will these tools go to next? As these are truly heirloom quality tools, I guess the answer will depend on where you, your children, and your children’s children head to in this great adventure we call “life”.


In the meantime you might like to go to Youtube and enjoy a visit to the factory.

More on Dastra tools (from Diefenbacher Tools):

In 1835 David Strasmann & Co. (Dastra) was founded in an old timber-framed house in Wuppertal-Ronsdorf, the heart of Germany’s tool-making industry. Today, the sixth generation of the Strasmann family still creates the finest handmade tools crafted to satisfy the needs of woodcarvers, sculptors and woodworkers.From forging to grinding, hardening, and polishing each tool goes through 32 stages to reach its completion.Most of the work is done by hand to ensure a level of quality equal to the finest edge tools ever made. Dastra tools are guaranteed to hold a razor sharp cutting edge even after extended use in the hardest woods.

The tools listed below are full size, professional carvers.The overall length averages 10" and each tool is fitted with an octagon hornbeam handle sized in proportion to the blade. The blades are hardened to Rc60-61 and are buffed to a satin finish. The profiles are beautifully ground and polished by expert craftsmen so that each tool reflects a perfect balance of strength and grace.

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Home is where the (Purple)heart is!

One of nature’s unusual masterpieces, Purpleheart (Peltogyne) is a true stunner. It comes mainly from Guiana, but also from various other South American countries.

Its hard and heavy at around 58 pounds per cubic foot (860kg per m3), but it machines well, although with a dulling affect on the cutters. It is a large tree, often 100-150ft tall with typical diameters of 2-4ft.

Color varies a bit and as the wood oxidizes it goes grayish brown. Fresh off the plane it is a lustrous purple (sometimes with reddish tints) that can really take your breath away. Our experience is that it is remarkably stable and lays flat and true. It also goes a wonderful olive grey color over time, if left with plentiful sunlight and no finish.

In furniture situations it can be used to striking effect with contrasting woods. For an exotic, sometimes considered rare, species we are surprised to see it sometimes used for siding on beach houses and for outdoor decking.

I have a feeling that its present low price and easy availability will not last forever, and everyone of forethought should stock up with a little for the future.

As always, I've included photos of a few interesting pieces for inspiration.

Purpleheart bedside table
A bedside table by Tom Crystal
Purpleheart guitar
A stunning guitar
Figured Purpleheart
Incredible figure in this piece
Purpleheart floor
How's that for an attention-grabbing floor?
Purpleheart screen
Forget the purpleheart screen, I want the house!
Purpleheart screen
But that screen sure makes a great statement
Purpleheart chessboard
Used to great effect in a chessboard
Purpleheart and Zebrawood console
And a real impact piece - a Purpleheart and Zebrawood console by Girelli Designs

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African Blackwood: dream or nightmare?

About 8 years ago we thought we had hit the jackpot, when we were offered 110 tons of second quality Blackwood logs at the crazy low price of $50-$100 per ton FOB at a Mozambique port. As prime quality African Blackwood was selling at about $20,000 per ton we thought we had died and gone to heaven. Instead, what followed was a four year “learning curve”. Surely I must be one of the most learned men in the wood trade by now!?!

African Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) belongs to the rosewood family and is a small scrubby tree that has a typical height of about 15-20ft with a max diameter trunk rarely more than 12 inches. It is often very fluted and we were to find out that the pith is also often eaten by ants, that can track sand and grit into the middle of the log, causing havoc with saw blades. With a typical dry weight of about 1200kg per cubic metre it is hard, heavy, oily wood of purplish black color and a narrow sap yellow-white in color. It is found all over Africa but mainly in Tanzania and Mozambique.

Local indigenous carvers are the main users of this rare and precious resource. Theodor Nagel ( has dominated the world trade in the species for the last 100 years or so. A 2003 study undertaken by Cambridge University (titled “International Trade in African Blackwood”) details the trade and highlights that it is seen as a flagship species for cooperative and sustainable conservation efforts in countries like Tanzania, where all to often it is used for firewood by local communities. See for important facts on its current status.

Bagpipes Clarinet
Traditional uses: Bagpipes...
...and a clarinet

The wood is very highly prized for ornamental turning as it cuts like steel and holds incredibly fine detail. It is also used in the best quality clarinets, oboes, flutes and bagpipes and just recently has been used as a back and side material for acoustic guitars. This last use has had mixed reviews. It is a superb tonewood and can look stunning with a little bookmatched sapwood showing, but reportedly Dana Bourgeois ( built an acoustic guitar for Ricky Skaggs ( which self destructed after 30 days in the humidity of Hawaii and it was unable to be resuscitated.

So, all we had to do was convert the logs and count the bucks? No-sirr-eee!!!

Four years later we have 96 tons of firewood and about 15 tons of miscellaneous blocks, planks and art pieces (and four missing fingers).

We tried stealth: I visited Nagel’s sawmills and warehouses in Africa and Germany, but was unable to gain any useful access or pointers. We also tried high speed steel, cobalt, tungsten carbide, stellite, bimetal in circular saws, bandsaws, pneumatic saws, portable sawmills (both band and circle) from 40 year old precision German monsters to the latest sliding tables and combinations thereof.

None of the methods, machines or materials used was a wildfire success. After the initial big push of six weeks breaking down the logs to usable sizes, we eventually settled to a production of 15-35 small blocks per day by one man: Leonard, our chief diamond cutter and super producer. Nothing I did could raise production - it took forty-eight months to finish the job. (We will leave out the story of the 4 missing fingers as this is a family show).

After 4 years we are older and wiser....but not a lot richer.

Do come and explore our large inventory of African Blackwood and share in both our joy and pain. It really is a wonderful wood for very specific needs. See below for some inspiration.

s_bowl_bill_ooms s_cube_bill_ooms
A beautiful bowl and cube box by Bill Ooms

Paired with Cocobolo for the handles of these knives by Peter Steyn

A collector grade duck call by Watkins Duck Calls

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Amazing Crotch Mahogany

We have in stock approximately 5000 ft of the most unique mahogany anywhere in the world. This is genuine mahogany (Swietenia Macrophylla) from the Amazonian jungles of Brazil.

Harvested approximately 15 years ago for the veneer trade, the best sheets of veneer were sliced off and we bought the “veneer remains”. These consist of pieces generally around 3ft tall, from about 20”-36” wide and varying in thicknesses from approximately 1” to about 4”, but mostly in the 2 to 3 inch range. Due to the nature of a crotch they are mainly semi triangular in shape and contain the normal defects associated with highly figured wood—it is not perfect and requires your skills to get the best out of it.

The wood is extremely dense (approx. 900kg per cubic metre) and rich red in color (goes almost dark walnut in color with oil and certain other finishes).

The most amazing thing of all is the low price of this wood – only $23 per board foot!

Compare this to the $675 per square metre (best quality) and $275 per square metre (medium quality) that my friend Alf Sharpe ( was quoted by a venerable Parisian firm for “veneer” and you will see that the solid wood costs approx 1/65 of the price of veneer. Alf and other quality woodworkers are seriously considering buying up lots of the solid wood and converting to thick veneer a la Krenov for use as and when required.

USES: Your imagination is the only limitation. Snap some up and be in a position to produce something unique and a tribute to your memory for years to come. And that’s over and above the more immediate joy of working with this wonderful artifact of nature.

In the meantime, I’ve included a few choice photos below to inspire you.

Bundles and bundles of glory
Admire the figure with or without water
Denatured alcohol or water really pops the grain


A beautiful pie-cut table top
A simple headboard insert

Some incredible speaker enclosures
..Or even an entire kitchen

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Lie Nielsen Open House (16-17 July 2010)

Recently we had a fantastic opportunity to participate in one of Lie-Nielsen's great Open House events.  We are very fortunate in that Lie-Nielsen, the world's leading maker of quality hand tools, is based just down the road in Warren, Maine. 

Tom Lie-Nielsen is probably same age as me, and is still incredibly focused and driven. His brisk pace around the room was one I'm afraid to say I haven't managed in 20 years or so. As with many great industry leaders he started with nothing but an idea, but built his business with a total focus on building superb products and marketing them in a way that generates trust and intimacy with his customers.  On top of that, against the odds, he has managed to build that business while keeping all of the manufacturing in the USA.

Lie-Nielsen is probably 90% responsible for the renaissance in quality hand tools for all sectors of the woodwork industry. He has competition from a number of other high-end manufacturers (for example, Veritas, Wentzloff, Blue Spruce - see, and some reasonable Chinese imitations that crop up at a fraction of the price (for example, Woodriver, Anant - see By keeping tight control over retail pricing, and reliably delivering against their bold product promises, Lie-Nielsen creates "heirloom quality" tools that hold their value, are seen as investments, and are cherished by those lucky enough to own them. One just has to enter ‘Lie-Nielsen' into Ebay to see the incredible prices they achieve second-hand.

As Henry Ford said: "You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do!"

They were also one of the first hand tools company to make great use of Youtube - go to the site and search for ‘Lie-Nielsen' to see for yourself. In fact they have posted a great little video of the Open House, which you can see below. Look out for me, looking engrossed, at the 40 second mark...

The event itself was a great opportunity to meet some really interesting people. Amongst those I chatted to were...

  • Christian Becksvoort (see - many of you will have read his articles in Fine Woodworking

  • Al Breed (see, who made a beautiful mahogany armoire which was recently written up in Fine Woodworking

  • A number of the guys from The Center for Furniture Craftmanship - arguably the finest wood school in the world. The school is also based nearby in Rockport, Maine and many of the students buy from us. In a subsequent post I intend to show off some of the superb work they have done with our lumber

  • Glen Drake (see another maker of quality tools and ex Krenov student

The Open House also drew a great international contingent...

  • From Germany I met Daniel Pschentiza of Dick ( An interesting business with an amazing range of high end products (and an unusual name)

  • From France I met Michel Auriou. He sells hand-made rasps at about $100 a pop - see - and can be seen working on one in the video

  • From the UK, I met Mike Hancock and a number of his staff from Classic Handtools (see

  • Also from UK, I met some of the guys from Axminster Power Tools  (, who by the looks of things carry an amazing range of stuff
On top of this there was Yoav from Harvard University's Department of Fine Arts, the Apprenticeship Boatschool, the chairman of the New Hampshire Guild of Furniture Craftsmen, the Damiriscotta-based Woodturning School, a philosophy professor who is also a wood sculptress... and lots of enthusiastic members of the public.

All in all it was a wonderful opportunity to mingle with like-minded people. Perhaps I'll see you at the next one...

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Located in beautiful Maine, USA

Come and explore our huge warehouse, with its large showroom and convenient racking to aid selection

Perhaps take in some of our wonderful Maine woods while you're here

With huge stocks of gorgeous exotic lumber from the four corners of the earth

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20 March 2018
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