David Frane_ToTT
David Frane_ToTT

It would never occur to me to make a woodworking fixture out of a bowling ball. But then I’m not Marc Kunkel.

During a tour of Fort Houston in Nashville, Tenn., where a community of craftspeople share shop space, I wandered away from the group and entered the shop of Kunkel & Son Fine Woodworking. I was admiring the old hand tools—a draw knife, chisels, and a beautifully preserved slick—hanging above a workbench when Marc Kunkel walked over and asked if he could help. It was then I realized I’d left Fort Houston and gone into a private work space.

I apologized for entering uninvited and asked if it would be okay to photograph the slick, an oversize chisel used by timber framers and boat builders. Kunkel said it would be fine to take photos and explained that the slick had originally belonged to his great-grandfather, a barn builder.

Next to the bench was an adjustable workstand made from the base of an old dentist’s chair. Kunkel saw me admiring it and said, “If you like that, then let me show you something really interesting”—at which point he placed a thick block of wood on the bench and plopped a bowling ball into a hole in the top of it. One of the ball’s finger holes had been drilled the rest of the way through, and a plumbing pipe capped by a flat piece of wood was screwed into it.

Kunkel showed me how a pair of ball valves could be screwed into holes in the side of the block and connected by hose to a vacuum pump. Applying a vacuum turns the bowling ball into a clamp for hard-to-clamp pieces—like the curved stair rail parts he often carves. The suction holds the work tight to the flat piece of wood on the pipe and keeps the ball from moving around. By releasing the vacuum, Kunkel can remove the workpiece or shift the ball to a different position.

David Frane is the editor of Tools of the Trade.