The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Can a woodworker have too many tools?

The spring and summer of 2016 has led me to more vintage woodworking tools (and tools in general) than the entire past 6 years combined. Last January I made the vow to not purchase any new woodworking tools. I sort of broke that vow when I purchased a bench grinder specifically for sharpening woodworking tools, but otherwise, I haven’t made a single purchase. That being said, I’ve shared on this very blog some of the many vintage tools I’ve come across during the past months. The good news: I paid little or literally nothing for all of them; the bad news: I have a lot of old tools laying around that need a lot of work.

So this all leads to the question: Can a woodworker have too many tools?

As of today, the mindset among the most influential woodworkers seems to be that too many tools is a bad thing. The arguments are compelling: they take up space, they take up time, they decrease the chance that a woodworker will develop proficiency in using a core set of tools, and maybe most importantly, they can be expensive (in particular if you are purchasing nothing but new tools).

Too many tools can also keep a woodworker from actually making furniture. Care for both new and vintage tools can be very time consuming (this includes power tools).  As of today, I have enough vintage tools in need of restoration to take me well into next spring. If I spent every Sunday restoring one of my vintage tools (that needs restoration) I estimate that the my next piece of finished furniture wouldn’t happen until sometime at the end of April, 2017.

The whole idea of woodworking is actually working wood, isn’t it? Tools can be fun, for sure, but tools are just a means to an end, right? The furniture, the end result of our toil, is why we woodwork.

So that still poses the question: Can a woodworker have too many tools?

After careful consideration, my answer is: F**K NO.

A new tradition…?

Whenever my daughter has a friend over, I eventually end up making “curlies” for them. At one time, a basic shaving from a bench plane was more than satisfactory; then one morning late summer of 2015 I took my daughter to Hearne Hardwood, where Dan Schwank of Red Rose Reproductions happened to be demonstrating some of his planes, among those was a spill plane. Though I was much more interested in the panel raising plane that I had tried (I very nearly ordered one that morning, along with a bill from a divorce attorney), my daughter was fascinated with the spills, so much so that she took them home with her and still has them today. In the meanwhile, for more than a year my daughter has been asking me to make spills for her, and though I can make something resembling one using a #4 plane, they were never nearly as nice as the spills that a dedicated plane can make.

Strangely, I learned about spill planes many years ago, because I just happened to see a television show where one was being used, though it was mounted on a bench and not a hand plane. For those who may be unaware, a spill plane is not really a woodworking tool. The sole purpose is a spill plane is to make spills (duh), which are long, tight shavings which were/are used to transfer a flame from a fireplace or other flame source. The distinctive shape of the shaving is created not only by the sharp skew of the plane iron, but also by the angle of the escapement and the shaping of the wedge. In ye olden times, items such as matches were not common place and often expensive. Spills were used to safely (relatively) light candles/lanterns/pipes etc. without sticking your hand in or too close to a roaring fire. In the modern world, where fireplaces and candles are far less common, and matches are cheap and easy to come by, the spill plane is no longer a necessary tool. Apparently, from what little research I’ve done, spills were often sold in small bundles and not necessarily made at home, though I would assume that more isolated homeowners would likely have purchased a spill plane to keep at the house rather than traveling many miles to get spills as needed. Nevertheless, last week I had a day off from work, my daughter had a friend over and I made them some curlies. My daughter, bless her, mentioned the spill plane (though she called it the ‘long curly maker’) and I decided to order it right then and there.

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The plane as it arrived…

 

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The shape of the escapement gives the spills their distinctive shape…

 

 

On the Red Rose Reproductions web page there is also an option to purchase a kit to build your own version. However, I view making tools the same way as I do cooking: just like I would never attempt to cook something until I was sure how it is supposed to taste, I wouldn’t attempt to make a tool that I’ve never used before. So I ordered the plane, it arrived a few days later (with a bouquet of spills), and I promptly began to make my own “curlies”. I was a little surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, that the spill plane does require a bit of skill to set. The depth adjustment is easy enough; it’s no different than any other wedge based plane, but adjusting the skew from side to side takes a little finesse because if it is off it will begin to take shavings which are uneven. It took around twenty minutes or so of experimentation before I was able to consistently produce spills that I was happy with. For the record, the recommended woods used for making spills are pine or cedar.

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My first, and messy, attempts at making spills…

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A completed bundle of spills ready for sale…

 

 

So what does a modern guy such as myself do with a spill plane? For my part, I plan on making a handful of small dovetailed boxes with sliding lids, filling them with a bundle of spills, and giving them as Christmas gifts. Yet, the truth is I purchased this tool for my daughter. We happily have a great relationship, but sooner than I would like to admit she will be a pre-teen, and eventually reach the dreaded teen years. And with the upcoming drama of young adulthood slowly but surely looming closer, I hope this Christmas season (and all of them) will be a good memory for her, spending some time with her old man (her ‘old dad’ as she calls me) in the garage making a few Christmas gifts. I plan on giving her all of my tools one day, and hopefully she will pass them along to her kids, and hopefully the future memories of the time she spent with me are some of the fondest of her life. That makes this some of the best money I’ve ever spent.

 

 

RIP

The other day I was working on the new wall cabinet I am building for my garage and it occurred to me that woodworking is dead. ‘How could I think that!?” you ask. It wasn’t hard. It was just as natural as taking a breath. ‘Woodworking is dead.” That sounds about right.

I had mentioned the other day the large pile of woodworking magazines I had in my garage. My small “keep” pile is still there, and maybe seeing it what triggered my thought. But last week I had to do some plumbing repairs at my house, and ran to Lowe’s to get what I needed. At my local Lowe’s, the magazine rack is just next to the checkout area. Five years ago, there would have been at least a dozen different woodworking magazines on that rack; I saw two, along with half a dozen how to books for shelf making.

So Lowe’s doesn’t sell woodworking magazines anymore; big deal! How about my local supermarket? They used to stock PW, Wood, Fine Woodworking, and Woodsmith. Those are all gone, part of a mythical time when there was more than one opinion in the world of woodworking. Surely my local bookstore must have woodworking magazines? It doesn’t. In fact, it doesn’t even have garbage woodworking books with titles like Woodworking for Dummies.

And it isn’t just the dearth of magazines that is concerning. It is the fact that woodworking is far less visible than it was not so long ago. During the past summer, I took a step back from woodworking, not in any academic sense; I wasn’t planning on conducting an experiment. I did it just because summer is not a time of year in which I like to woodwork much. In taking that step back, I discovered that woodworking is not only way out of the mainstream, it is not even a trickle into a pond, and that wasn’t always the case. For example, in 2016 I happened to notice there was not one woodworking show-that I saw-in this region of the country. That may not mean much in the middle of Wyoming, but in S.E. Pennsylvania, with its population of nearly 7 million, that says something; it says a lot; it speaks volumes.

In 2015 there were at least two shows because I went to both.

In 2016, zero point zero.

This could be a culling of the herd and nothing more. Maybe woodworking had a lot of fat that needed to be trimmed. Or maybe the herd is sick, and dying.

And here is the problem, as I perceive it: for most people, WOODWORKING IS A HOBBY, it is not a way of life, or a culture, or a religion, or a political system. That isn’t to say that it shouldn’t be taken seriously by those who practice the hobby. I needn’t remind anybody that everybody’s goal should always be to put forth their best effort no matter what the endeavor. I’m not telling anybody how and why to woodwork. What I am saying is that people who make tools, and write books, and produce magazines, and make furniture are professionals, and to try to emulate them is a losing proposition simply because they get paid to do it and the vast majority of the rest of us do not. The mindset is totally different and forever will be.

I know I’ve gone over this topic numerous times, but on this occasion things have changed a little, and not for the better. Because this time woodworking has already been pushed back into obscurity. Woodworking is now a few thousand half-assed YouTube videos. Woodworking is now an internet search that turns up a whole lot of nothing. Woodworking is now a stern lecture from elders who are not “eld”. Woodworking is now a clique, and it isn’t the “cool” clique. It is the geeky, zit faced clique that hides in the AV closet and thinks that deep down they are the cool kids, only to become the very thing they hated.

Woodworking messed up, big time, when it stopped telling people how to build and started telling them what to think. That philosophy may work on an 18-year-old little pissant who doesn’t know his ass from second base going to a 50k per year liberal arts college only because his parents have their shit together enough to send him there in the first place. But, in general, it doesn’t work with normal, well-adjusted, intelligent adults.

So what now? Nothing. I’m not offering a solution because woodworking is already FUBAR, unless you prefer your weekend hobby seasoned with some self-righteous posturing and pseudo-intellectual philosophy lessons then things are just fine and dandy. In that case you likely won’t be reading this post anyway.

But for the rest of us the only advice I have is to possibly start over, maybe get yourself a book on constructing birdhouses, or watch some reruns of The New Yankee Workshop. Maybe birdhouses and Norm aren’t your idea of woodworking, but neither is anything else currently being shoved down our throats, and I can guarantee you this: it is the path of least pretention.

 

Email update

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I prefer comments pertaining to the blog to be made in the comment section of the blog itself. I fully understand that some people would prefer to send an email rather than comment publicly. Though do I think that the blog and its readers would benefit from a new or different viewpoint.

In any event, if you do feel the need to send me an email rather than comment, please send that email to confusedwoodworker@gmail.com and I will do my best to answer promptly.

Thanks.

Bill

Embracing technology

I recently did a routine cleaning/organization of my garage and once again discovered some items I didn’t even realize I had, among them literally thousands of drill bits, of every size you can possibly imagine (where did I get them? your guess is as good as mine). But I think the most surprising discovery was a stack of hundreds of woodworking magazines. Everything was there from Shop Notes, Woodsmith, Popular Woodworking, Fine Woodworking, Wood, and several others. I did not stop and bother to count them out, but there were at least 200. Many years ago I installed two spare kitchen cabinets in the back corner of my garage, which is ‘L’ shaped, and considering that the ‘L’ portion of my garage is a forgotten corner of odds and ends, I basically forgot about them. And since I’ve been reading woodworking magazines even before I started woodworking, I had amassed quite a collection. Likely, I placed the magazines in the cabinet sometime during the spring of 2013 because, June 2013 is the latest issue I can find in there, but I found some Shop Notes dating back to 2005, which is surprising because I honestly hadn’t realized I had been subscribing for that long. Here’s the worst part, I also have three plus years worth of Popular Woodworking in our spare bedroom.

I couldn’t tell you how many magazines I’ve subscribed to in my lifetime, but it has been a lot. I can name at least forty off the top of my head, yet there are at least forty more that I am forgetting.  I would have to say my love of magazines started in the military. As I was in during the pre-cell phone, pre-internet world, receiving a magazine or two or three during mail call was a connection to the outside world during a time when it was very easy to feel isolated from the rest of society. And being a man of many interests, I subsequently subscribed to a variety of different magazines.

Yet, there has been a difference between my woodworking magazines and nearly every other magazine I’ve ever read; for whatever reasons it seems I’ve been vey reluctant to discard those woodworking magazines. I’m not quite sure what this reluctance stems from, however. Going through that pile, I made the difficult choice to put many of them in the recycle bins. The Woodsmith and Shopnotes, which have thicker paper and binder rings, I hope can be used by my local library, otherwise, I will recycle many of those as well.

I’ve never been a hoarder, not even close. Every six months I go through my clothing, and every six months I bring a pile to Goodwill. The same can be said for many things I have; if it is unused it gets donated, period. I cannot stand the thought of clutter, yet for some reason I could not stand the thought of parting with my old woodworking magazines. Maybe that says something about me and the value that woodworking has in my life. I’m sure it does in some regard.

So, just this morning I renewed my subscription to Popular Woodworking. I had let it lapse without realizing. And when I renewed I selected the ‘Digital Issue’ option. This is the first time I have ever purchased a digital only magazine, and I’m not too sure how I feel about it just yet. One of the great, simple pleasures I enjoyed was throwing the latest issue of PW into my backpack and reading it during break at work, or paging through it while sitting in the living room. Now, I will have to read it from a tablet, or from my desktop. Of things to complain about, having to read a magazine from a tablet is way down on the list. And the good news is I now have an instant archive to go through when need be.

Though I embraced the digital world years ago, there are many things I miss. I am sure many people feel the same way. Maybe one day soon print magazines will no longer exist. And maybe that is a good thing, because I would think that it is much more cost effective to go that route. When and if that day comes, I won’t be too happy about it. But, I had to make a choice to help keep my life and house uncluttered, and a digital magazine is a start.

This should be the last time.

Back in September I almost built a new workbench. Almost? What does ‘almost’ mean? Well, I sawed the material to length, created the recesses for the lap joints and front apron, bored out the holes for the through-bolts, and did a complete dry fit for the base. I purchased a shiny new floor mat and even went as far as to find a new home for my “old” bench.

So, what stopped me? I was once again asked the question: What is wrong with my current bench? The answer is: Not a damn thing. So maybe the real question should be: What started me? Unfortunately, I don’t have a simple answer to that question.

One reason could be the fact that I’ve had the material for this project sitting in my garage for well over a year and it was burning a hole in my pocket. Or maybe I was just bored. Another reason is I have been intrigued by the idea of a split top bench with a wide front apron for some time, sort of a hybrid design combining my current bench with my favorite features of Paul Sellers workbench.

The split top workbench is apparently very popular at the moment. For many, I guess the reason is that in theory it is much easier to work with two smaller tops (in terms of clamping, flattening etc.) than one large one. For me, I loved the idea of a mini, built in tool rack built right into the bench top, where tools like chisels and saws and marking gauges/knives could easily be placed within reaching distance yet kept in an organized fashion with the cutting edges safely placed. Of course, a tool rack could also be fastened to the back of the bench, but why not have both?

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The slab planed down smooth…

So, as October rolled in I glued up a new slab to serve as the second half of the spilt top, planed it smooth and even on all three edges, removed my tool tray (more on that in a moment) and attached the new top. To cap it all off, a few weeks ago I bored the holes through the top of the bench for 5/8 oak dowels to fasten the top to the base as well as attached some ‘L’ brackets for added support. Lastly, I planed down some Douglas fir construction lumber (left over from my “other” bench) to use as two new ends at either side of the bench to tie it all together.

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Slab installed and initial plane work finished.

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Right side of bench showing the built in tool rack in action…

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Left side of bench showing pegs and new end board. The bench top originally had a slight chamfer, so I filled the gap with glue and saw dust…

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A lengthwise view of the bench showing off some of my new, old tools…

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A promised pic of some of the tools I gathered over the past few months…

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A really cool Luther hand cranked grinder I picked up over the summer…

I can say without reservation that I will put my bench up against anybody’s as far as appearance, functionality, and ease of construction. Of course, there are benches made from hardwoods that look stunning, even better than some fine furniture, but I guarantee that you couldn’t build one in a weekend or even a month of weekends (unless of course you have access to some very high end equipment). With basic machinery and hand tools my bench design could easily be constructed over the course of a Saturday and Sunday using anything from construction lumber to fine hardwoods. Maybe most importantly, if I built this bench from scratch tomorrow, I could probably do it for just around $350 including the vise hardware and the holdfasts. In fact, I like this design so much that if I were better with programs such as Sketch up I would create detailed plans and offer them free of charge.

So when all is said and done, is this change an indictment of tool trays? Absolutely not. Every so-called detriment of tool trays: they’re messy, they take up valuable bench top space, they get in the way, etc. did not apply in my experience with the one on my bench. I have but one problem with tool trays, and that is they are a bit difficult to incorporate into the design of a bench. I prefer a deep tray along with a wide base. Trust me when I say that having both is not as easy as it sounds. My ideal solution is constructing a tray and attaching it to the back of the completed bench, and the tray could be removable depending on personal preference. In fact, I very nearly did that during this process but decided that it would push my bench out farther into an already cramped work area.  If I had larger work space the sky would be the limit. And for the record, the current dimensions of the bench are just under 34 inches tall, 24 inches deep, and 75 inches long.

This coming weekend I will finish the bench by boring in a row of dog holes closer to the front of the bench top. The back row of holes has served just fine for most tasks, but I’ve found that using joinery planes, such as a plow plane or a fillister, would be much easier with a closer set of dogs. I may also make that slotted tool rack which runs along the entire back of the bench. Because I am planning on relocating one of my wall mounted tool racks to make room for a new wall cabinet/plane rack that I am currently making, a tool rack on the back of the bench may be helpful in the meanwhile.

As far as my “new” bench is concerned, I may or may not assemble it fully and find a place for it somewhere in the house. More than likely I will organize the material into a ready to assemble stockpile and set it aside for that glorious day when we move to a house where I can have an actual workshop.

Back, for the moment…

Considering that this is my first blog entry in some time, I thought about writing a “controversial” post. I won’t do that, however. Rather, I will provide a brief explanation of what I’ve been up to over the past summer. Woodworking wise, I completed a handful of smaller projects, but nothing large. As I’ve said many times on this blog, summers in this region of the country are generally long, hot, and humid, and this past summer was no exception. When I woodwork, I don’t want it to be “work”, I want to enjoy it, and woodworking in 90+ degree weather in a space with no climate control is far more work than I want to do with my free time. So my project list over the summer, while fairly long, really  added up to a half dozen or so small boxes.
However, this past summer was a summer of tools.

Last spring, we hired a new employee who happens to enjoy going to area auctions. When he found that I enjoy woodworking, he mentioned that he had quite a few woodworking tools that he purchased at these auctions for very little cost. I was more than happy to have a look at them. Needless to say, I came away with dozens of old tools, including half a dozen bench planes, some saws, several spoke shaves, a really cool hand-cranked grinder, and an old wood-bodied jointer plane. And it was that jointer plane that lead to my first power tool purchase in many years.

During the spring, I had noticed a sharp pain in my right forearm, often running from my wrist to my shoulder. I found out that it was tendonitis, which is hardly the end of the world, but it’s not something I would recommend having, either. In the meanwhile, the jointer plane, a Howland & Sons, was in pretty rough shape. The strangest part was the iron, which was completely rusted over. Most old plane irons I’ve come across look like they were sharpened by somebody who held it with their teeth as they ran it across the grinder. This iron, while slightly skewed, had a bevel that was pretty straight, or at least much straighter than many I’ve seen. Still, it took me several hours of hand grinding just to get the bevel to the point where it could be sharpened. And after the fact my arm was hurting pretty good. There and then, I decided that my days of hand grinding old tools were over.

In the meanwhile, I received a few hundred dollars in Visa gift cards from a promo. With that money, I purchased an 8 inch slow speed grinder and a Vertitas grinding wheel jig. For the sake of full disclosure, I will admit that I would not have purchased the grinder if I hadn’t had the gift cards, bad arm or no (sorry, but I’m cheap). In any event, the new grinder has done a lot to make restoring old tools more enjoyable.

On another note, I also scored more than 100 board feet of walnut and around 50 board feet of cherry all for the cost of nothing (next to nothing at least). I have two projects in the works that I will be writing about over the next few weeks, and I want to do one last post concerning tool trays…

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