If and when you make a woodworking bench, and you decide that it needs a tool tray, somehow it seems to draw people out of the…woodwork. Some of the people lurking in the woodwork may be completely normal, and some may be completely wacked. Either way, for whatever reason, when you combine a woodworking bench and a tool tray, it somehow, some way, gets other woodworkers all worked up. When I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was adding a tool tray to my workbench I got a little bit of backlash over it. I didn’t necessarily care. Once I make up my mind to do something, there are few people who can change it; so I went ahead and added the tool tray without regrets. According to my calculations, a tool tray would not affect my woodworking or the functionality of the workbench in any way, shape, or form, but that was all in theory. This past weekend was the first time I actually used the “new” bench.
Before I go on, I have to say that the tool tray I added to the bench probably represents the worst woodworking I’ve done in years. The tray is not truly square to the bench, the back sits lower than it should, making it worthless for support, and the boards I used were not all that great, meaning they were bowed and had slight warp. Another thing; the way I attached the tray to the bench is not all that great, either. Had I built the tray into the top when I first made the bench (like I should have done), it would have turned out much more nicely. My retrofit was not technically sound. At that, I have absolutely no fear of it becoming loose or unattached, or even “sinking”, but what I really should do is add another support board along the back to connect all three sections of the tray, that, however, is another story. Anyway, with all of the negative aspects of the tray out of the way, I am happy to say that the bench performed just fine.
Sunday morning I had a few simple things that needed to be done at the bench, which included sawing a board to length and boring two holes in it. The bench did its job. I had no holding issues, no support issues, or no clamping issues. Like I said many times before, I woodwork almost exclusively on the front 12 inches of the bench. My new bench top is effectively 17 inches wide, that is more than enough for what I do. I do not assemble furniture on the bench, and if I may be so bold, I do not recommend anybody else doing it either. Workbenches are fine for assembling drawers, small boxes, frames, and certain sub-assemblies, but they suck for full scale work. Most workbenches are too tall to use for assembling larger furniture, that is unless you like working off of a step ladder; I don’t. If you are like me, and decide that you are not going to use your benchtop for assembly, you do not need the traditional 24-30 inch wide top, though at the same time it certainly can’t hurt having it. I sacrificed width for a tool tray, and on my first attempt at using it I was successful. For example, when I finished sawing the board to length, I placed the backsaw neatly in the middle tray, where it sat at arms length, yet completely out of the way of my work. The same thing can be said of the brace and bit I used, once I was finished with them they went right into the tray, out of the way but ready to be used at a moments notice. I call that a success.
The bench top still needs a little work. I currently have a row of just four dog holes; that row probably needs to be expanded to at least seven holes, or possibly nine. I also plan on once again adding the base to my Kreg Clamp. The Kreg clamp works great, and is easy to remove when not needed. Once those minor modifications are made, I will use the bench as normal and do a little more evaluating. At the moment I can’t see myself doing much more to the bench. I’ve had nearly four years to figure out what I like in a workbench, and I described those things in detail on several other blog posts. I went the tool tray route with my bench, though it seems that few other woodworkers use them anymore, just because that’s the trend I guess. I don’t like following trends to be honest; I like to think for myself, I like to discover things for myself. I like the road less traveled by, and so far that has made all the difference.
The latest issue of Popular Woodworking magazine strangely sat unread in my living room since it arrived nearly two weeks ago. It’s not that I didn’t want to read it, because when it arrived I quickly scanned through it. Usually when I get a new issue I will do one of two things; either read it right away or bring it to work to read during break. Neither of those things happened this time around. I was very busy leading into Thanksgiving, and then I got sick. When I say I’m sick, it isn’t “mommy I have a tummy ache” sick. I was laid up for nearly 5 days with the flu. I even missed two days of work, which almost never happens. So during that stretch I didn’t do much of anything, let alone read a magazine. So yesterday afternoon after football, and today during my break at work, I read the latest Popular Woodworking cover to cover. My impression? Another extremely good issue.
You may ask, what happened to the angry, foul-mouthed, vitriolic, cynical guy who used to write this blog? Nothing, I’m still mostly here. The truth is, I don’t suck-up much. It’s not me and it doesn’t look good on me, but, I am all for giving credit. Frankly, Popular Woodworking has been great over the past six months. In fact, when I did my magazine review post I had it ranked second behind Woodsmith. I still like Woodsmith a lot, but PW may now be at the top of my rankings. I’ve said this before, but I nearly let my subscription expire last year. I am glad that I didn’t. Both the old and new staff are doing a great job, and Christopher Schwarz, love him or hate him, is contributing more to the magazine with some very good projects and woodworking profiles. The best part is that I know that it can and will improve even more, you can almost see it coming.
There were several really good sections in the latest issue. The first thing that caught my eye was a pretty ingenious little idea in the tips and tricks section for a saw till. Roy Underhill’s article about combination planes is another winner, as is Christopher Schwarz’s profile of Australian tool maker, Chris Vesper. Vesper seems like a very nice guy, but he can’t seem to figure out why he can’t find a girlfriend even though he basically lives in a shed that doesn’t have indoor plumbing behind his parent’s house, which it also seems is somewhere in the middle of nowhere. He may make world-class tools, but he doesn’t know squat about women. Anyway, my favorite article is by Glen Huey, and is about lock hardware. Though I am no locksmith, I always enjoyed the inner workings of a lock, and this article sheds some light on that subject. Not only that, it introduces some lock terminology, which is always nice to know when you are planning on adding a lock to your work.
So, at the risk of once again royally sucking up, I have to say that Popular Woodworking magazine has published another great issue (Dec 2013 #208 if you need to know) If you haven’t checked it out, please do. I’ll be honest, I only read two woodworking magazines anymore, and both have been great. I’m having trouble finding stuff to complain about, which I’m finding to be upsetting. In all seriousness, PW continues to do some really good things, and if I have the right to criticize, I should also have the responsibility of praising when it deserves praise. For the last six months, Popular Woodworking magazine certainly has deserved all of the praise I’ve given it. If you are a woodworker, and you aren’t reading it, I really think you should start.
At work today I had to do a 600 amp, three-phase service lay out; they are fairly common in my line of work. The service consisted of a 75kva 480-120/208 transformer, a 600 amp MDP panel, a 600 amp 3R service disconnect, 3-200 amp 3R service disconnects, 3-200 amp MCB panels, 3-meters, and the kilowatt meter. A service of this size I can usually have laid-out and priced with the approval drawings in 20-30 minutes using a computer. If I have to do it by hand, which is very rare, it takes longer. You wouldn’t believe the questions I get concerning these services. People have no concept of how electricity works, and what it takes to distribute and meter it safely. I’m seeing this more and more.
Surely some of you reading this may say that I’m not being fair. After all, I’ve had nearly two years of schooling in electrical systems, 67 credit hours to be exact, not to mention on the job training and ten years of work experience; it should be expected and required of me to know more than the layman. Maybe. But there are books, videos, courses, etc. available to anybody who wants to learn more about electrical systems and how they function. It doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to learn the basics of electrical distribution. Electricity has been in widespread use for nearly one hundred years; the tools haven’t changed much; even the way it is generated has remained rather consistent. Surely the only things keeping the average person from learning about electricity, it’s uses, it’s generation, it’s equipment, and it’s tools are laziness and stupidity, aren’t they?
I know that some of you who read this probably are thinking that I am nothing more than a total jerk right about now. You may be wondering how I could be so presumptuous to assume that any person who doesn’t possess common knowledge of a skilled trade that requires years of schooling, practice, and on the job training must be nothing more than a lazy fool blissful in his own ignorance. You may be wondering how I could be so callous as to scoff at their questions concerning my trade. You may be wondering why I think it ridiculous for any person not to own a professional set of electrical tools. You may think that I am a creep because even though I do electrical work for a living, I expect people who are not exposed to it very often to have as much knowledge and skill as I do. You might think of me as nothing more than a complete A**hole to expect an amateur to dedicate all of his free time to learning about electricity, otherwise he is not worthy of the knowledge.
Now that I think about it, those of you who think those things may be absolutely correct. But I don’t mean to insult; I am just passionate. With all due respect, shouldn’t I expect everybody to be as passionate as I? Don’t I have a right to do that? I’m just doing my best to be an ambassador to the trade; is that wrong? I know that I get paid for my work in the trade, but shouldn’t I be able to expect the same level of dedication from those who want to learn about it just for fun in the little free time that they have? The bottom line is, I am only trying to get you people off your asses and show you just how rewarding electrical work can be. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?
The other day on a woodworking forum, a beginning woodworker asked me which I would purchase first: a table saw or a workbench? Before I answered, I told the person that I don’t often offer advice, which is true. To paraphrase a favorite author of mine, “Advice is a dangerous gift, and all options could end in failure.” At the same point, when somebody asks me a question, I usually feel obligated to answer. I answer questions all day. People ask me electrical questions that make me cringe and pray that they have a nearby fire company. So when this person asked me this question I did my best to answer it.
Firstly, I asked him if the question was just hypothetical. He said that he had always wanted to woodwork and now is finally ready to start. My initial advice was to buy a table saw and use it to make a workbench. In fact, that is exactly what I did. I know that not long ago I had said on this very blog that if I could start all over again, I would purchase a workbench rather than make one. I still stand by that, but I also said that a new woodworker in the market for a workbench should build the Bob Key bench, use it for a few years, and then purchase one after they got a real feel for what they wanted to do as a woodworker. I am a firm believer that every woodworker will make or purchase at least two workbenches in his or her lifetime, and not because of the first bench wearing out. You can take any workbench plan out of any workbench book that the author claims is just about a perfect bench, and I guarantee that eventually you will find several things on the bench that you would like to change. My current bench was born out of nearly five years of woodworking; I must have changed or modified it at least a dozen times. The worst part is, I know I will move onto another bench sooner rather than later. At that, workbenches are too expensive to both purchase and make and too time consuming to build over and over again til you get it right. You can spend $2500 on one of the top model table saws and pretty much be set for the next 20 years. The same can’t be said of a workbench.
So my advice was to purchase the best table saw he could afford. I reasoned that with a table saw you can immediately begin to make furniture; with a workbench you have nothing but a cool looking table. A workbench needs saws and planes and chisels to produce anything. Of course, you need other tools besides a table saw if you want to woodwork, but getting a good one at the get-go will save a lot of future headaches. He told me the reason he had asked me was because he read one of my blog entries about workbenches and table saws being two of the most expensive tools a woodworker usually owns. He felt that by starting off with one of the big ticket items, he could slowly and surely build up his tool kit from there. I thought that was smart thinking. He then promptly told me that he had already ordered a workbench, and that he was just wondering what I would have done. I wished him good luck. It turned out that my impassioned reasoning was all for naught. Well, what do I know? Now you all know why I’m slightly confused.
I’ve noticed that several woodworking blogs and web pages have been putting up lists of suggested gifts for the woodworker. I have to admit that is a pretty good idea, because chances are that many woodworkers share at least some of the same tastes. I’ve decided to add my two cents to the kitty and put up a short list of items that I own and think would make good gifts for the woodworker in your life. So here goes.
I own several pairs of these work pants and they are well worth the money. They are both thicker and heavier than their Carhartt equivalent, but at the same time softer and less stiff. There are tool pockets on both legs, along with a hammer loop, and the zipper is heavy duty with a large pull. They may be a bit too heavy to work in during the summer, but for the other three seasons they are just about perfect. They work well both in a workshop or a job site, and they don’t stain easily.
This was a tool I owned long before I got into woodworking, and only recently traded it for a Starrett. The cost is extremely low for the quality of the tool. However, I will say that when I purchased mine more than ten years ago the tool was made in America. As of now I am not sure where this tool is manufactured, but if it is of the same quality as mine then I have no problem recommending it as a gift. It is accurate, inexpensive, and a must have for woodworking.
If you, or a woodworker you know, owns a workbench and doesn’t own a pair of these holdfasts it would be the first tool I would purchase on the list. They work brilliantly, are inexpensive, high quality, and will see use nearly every time a woodworking bench is being used. There is not a single project I have built that haven’t seen holdfasts come into play at least a half dozen times. I cannot say enough good things about these tools; they are as good a product as you will find anywhere as far as woodworking tools are concerned.
For less than $100, this four-piece chisel set is the best value on the market. These chisels are light, easy to sharpen, have high quality handles and tool steel, and come in a leather pouch. For the money, I have not used a better chisel, not even close. In my opinion, to get a chisel of this quality you are going to spend more than double the money for another brand. In fact, be prepared to spend more than triple for the Lie Nielsen versions. This set could very well be the first and last set of bench chisels a woodworker will ever need.
While I am not as enamored with the #4 smooth plane as many other woodworkers can be, I certainly know that it is a useful tool. The problem is that a good quality one can get expensive. While there is nothing wrong with spending money on a good quality tool, the #4 plane does not get used as often as you think, and I am of the mind that I would rather put the money into a tool that sees more use. If you are looking to go new, the Stanley Sweetheart #4 is a great option. The plane is made of ductile iron, has premium totes, a high quality iron that is easy to sharpen, and a Norris style adjuster. I own it and have little to complain about. For less than $130 it is as good a hand plane as you can get.
Especially for a person new to sharpening, this set is a great start. It includes a 1000/8000 grit Norton water stone, a side clamp honing jig, tool oil, and a Lie Nielsen ruler if you prefer to sharpen using the “ruler trick”, which I personally don’t care for all that much. Aside from a 220 grit stone that I own, this set is the only system I use to sharpen with and I have had no trouble keeping my tools edges maintained, and believe me I am no expert sharpener. You are not saving much money by purchasing the kit over individual pieces, but if you need everything in the kit this is the easy way to go about it.
So that is my list of basic items that I believe any woodworker could use. The most expensive item on the list is $125. I personally believe that any one of these gifts would work great for a woodworker who for whichever reason does not own them. I know that it can be tough sometimes to find a gift for a woodworker, especially a new woodworker. So I hope that this list helps out a little bit, and possibly makes a woodworker happy on Christmas morning.
To a man, we all have delusions of grandeur sometimes. For a woodworking blog writer such as myself, that may mean believing that what I write actually inspires another woodworker, or helps another woodworker, or at the least shows woodworking from another perspective. Maybe I have accomplished those things in some small way, or maybe I haven’t. The problem I have is that as a woodworker/blog writer I have little or no credibility. I am not a professional woodworker, nor am I a professional writer. I’ve had little training in woodworking, and my instruction in writing is limited to general high school and college English courses. I am a rank amateur. In fact, what I probably should be writing about is electrical work and tools, which are subjects where I may be considered an expert, or at the least accomplished. But while I make my living in the electrical world, it is not a field that draws many hobbyists. It is very much a technical field following fairly strict rules and guidelines. i.e. it is not something most people would do for fun in their free time. Woodworking, on the other hand, thrives on the weekend warrior.
The financial success of woodworking magazines and web pages depends on the hobbyist. The hobbyist is asked to contribute to the “woodworking community” nearly every day. I am somewhat cynical, I freely admit. I do not often trust the motives of many, especially when they are selling something. But just as I am a cynic, I am also an optimist, and there have been times when I thought that my contributions, as it were, have made a difference, at least a little. The real, sad, truth of the matter is they have made no difference, not really. My blog fails on two levels. Firstly, I am not selling anything here, therefore it generates no capital whatsoever. Secondly, it generates no capital whatsoever. I’ve discovered that in the world of woodworking, when you aren’t selling something, and you aren’t making anybody money, you are not considered a contributor.
I like to read other amateur woodworking blogs such as my own. I’ve found some good ones right here on WordPress, among other places. These blogs feature some good writing but more importantly, good woodworking. Besides the fact that they are amateur blogs, what else do they all have in common? Well, it goes without saying that they aren’t selling anything woodworking related: tools, furniture, or both, and secondly, nowhere will you find them on any “must-read” blog list. That second point bothers me, a lot. Why does it bother me? It has nothing to do with recognition for me or anybody else. Recognition to an amateur means next to nothing when it comes down to it, other than a feather in your cap. But it does have something to do with what is “good” for woodworking. Most of the “must-read” blogs that I’ve read have two things in common: they are selling something, and as far as blogs go a lot of them suck. Maybe my blog sucks, too, but it isn’t selling anything, and it isn’t on a list of blogs considered culturally significant in the world of woodworking. The optimist in me likes to believe that a list of must-read woodworking blogs would not only be entertaining, they also wouldn’t require a credit card number and expiration date. The cynic in me knows why they do.
Before I finish, I would like to say that I am not implying that all professional woodworking blogs/web pages are bad and not worth a look. Some of them are quite good. I would also like to acknowledge that I am all for seeing the financial success of professional woodworkers and blog writers everywhere. In fact, I can say without hesitation that I’ve tried my best to solicit some of these blogs, because they certainly deserve the support of the woodworking community. Not to sound like Dr. Seuss, but I have to think that what is “good for woodworking” doesn’t always have to carry a price tag. I’ve learned as much from amateur blogs as from anywhere else, and I’ve been much more entertained; I can’t be the only woodworker to make that claim. I also have to think that a must-read woodworking blog list just by the law of averages should have its fair share of amateur blogs on it and sadly almost none of them do. So what is the message being sent, to be a contributor to the woodworking community you probably should be selling something? For me, a contributor to the woodworking community is not selling, but making, and then sharing his/her experiences with the rest of the group. There’s just not much of that going on. So I am going to do my part and not contribute to any blog but an amateur one, and of course my own. That may be nothing more than the statement of a self-important ego maniac, but it didn’t take a credit card number and expiration date for all of you to find that out.
I hope that all of you both here in America, and around the world, have a great and happy Thanksgiving Day! Here in America, we take it as a day to celebrate with our families and count our blessings. I can say that I try to do so everyday, though sometimes I forget to. But when I think of everything that I am truly fortunate enough to have, it is nothing short of a humbling feeling. So thank you all, and have a great day tomorrow.