The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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September 2021



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A quick piece of advice.

I received my first woodworking related email in a long, long time last night, and it had to do with the contents of yesterday’s post. The writer of the email suggested that shelling out two or three hundred dollars for three tools is not economically viable for a new woodworker, especially if that person is just feeling out a new hobby which he or she may or may not continue to pursue. I will still disagree, because as I said yesterday, if $300 is a lot of money for you then you’re in for a rude awakening even if you become a semi-serious woodworking hobbyist. And though I did (politely) disagree with the email, I will concede that the writer has made a good point.

So the real question is, if my hypothesis is correct: In summary, the best way for a new woodworker to quickly enter the hobby (using handtools that is) is by purchasing a few high quality tools, using them as a guideline and a gauge as to see and learn how a high quality tool should function, then taking that knowledge and experience and using it to restore and repair lower priced new and/or vintage tools…How can a new woodworker get around purchasing the new tools and still get a good feeler on how those finely tuned tools work?

Well, my answer is both simple and not so simple. What I would recommend is going to a woodworking store (which you may or may not have in your area) and ask to try out a few high quality planes, saws, and chisels. You probably aren’t going to learn how to set a saw just by using it, but you can take some close up photos with your cell phone that show what a sharpened saw tooth looks like and what the set should be. As I said yesterday, saws are tricky, and even experienced woodworkers sometimes have issues with them. I’ve never seen a vintage saw that didn’t need to be jointed, filed, sharpened, and re-set, so if you are going to purchase only one new tool I would suggest it be a good quality dovetail saw or any general back saw.

A hand plane is easier to deal with at the store. You can take a few passes on some sample boards (most woodworking stores will have a workbench with samples to mess around with), and you should be able to get a basic feel of how a properly sharpened and adjusted plane feels. You can also remove the lever cap and iron/cap iron and see where the frog is set. This should at least give you some general ideas as to what needs to be done to a used or inexpensive plane that needs work to get it up and running. As with the saw, take some close up photos for reference.

As for the chisels, this is also a bit tougher. Chisels are among the simplest woodworking tools, but they can also be tricky to set up if the back is not flat. I’m going to pick on Paul Sellers again, only because his is the only YouTube woodworking channel that puts out a lot of content that is actually worth watching, in my opinion.

I believe that Sellers uses a very inexpensive set of chisels on his channel, I say this because I recall him doing a video which shows him getting those tools up and running. I honestly don’t recall how long it took him to set up those chisels, but it was a good 45 minutes to do just one of them if I’m not mistaken. I will also add that Sellers is a true woodworking expert at many aspects of the profession. I add this because it still took him 45 minutes to set up a single, inexpensive chisel. And let’s say that had Sellers not been talking and explaining as he went, he could have cut that time in half to roughly 20 minutes.

If it took an expert like Sellers 20 minutes, how long do you think it might take a person who likely has never prepared and sharpened a chisel before? Sellers uses a fairly simple sharpening set up: sand paper, diamond plates, and a charged strop. That set up probably costs around $200. A new woodworker likely will not have those items handy, but will probably want to get them or a similar set up at one point. That all being said, I would bet that for a brand new woodworker to set up and sharpen a set of four, inexpensive chisel it will take 4 hours, perhaps even longer. No, I am not exaggerating. I will also bet that a brand new woodworker who has never sharpened a chisel before, could set up and sharpen TWO $55 Lie Nielsen chisels in approximately 15 minutes using a basic, inexpensive1000/8000 water stone and leather strop.

Flattening the back of a chisel that is a bit rough takes a LONG TIME. I know because I’ve done it, and I have diamond plates just like Paul Sellers. I will guarantee that a new woodworker will not correctly set up a cheap set of chisels on his first, second, or even third attempt. The edge will not hold, the back will need repeated flattening because it wasn’t done correctly to begin with, and soon enough frustration will set in. If a new woodworker values his or her time, a good quality chisel from a company like Lie Nielsen or Veritas will need only a honing to get up and running. It may need to be re-flattened at some point, but that should be much easier to accomplish because the tool was in excellent shape right out of the box. LN chisels out of the box are about as flat as any chisel that has received hours of set up, I know that because I own a few of them. Once again, I highly recommend getting a few good chisels rather than an inexpensive set that will test your patience and flare up your carpal tunnel syndrome during the hours they require to get into working condition.

Here is the not so simple part: Is it ethical to go to a woodworking store and use their tools with no intention of purchasing anything? In my own opinion, no, it is not. Woodworking stores are businesses that require employees, insurance, inventory, utilities, and rent, among other expenses. So, my second piece of advice on this post is: If you do go to a woodworking store to use their premium tools with no desire to purchase them, at least purchase something! Get a nice bench brush, or a good folding rule, maybe a few bottles of glue and a wood mallet. Remember, the people there are trying to make a living, so if you are going to use them as a resource, you should at the very least contribute to their existence by patronizing their store with a few purchases every time you go.

As always, you can take my advice or leave it. But please remember, I am only trying to help.

****Just FYI, though I don’t mind emails in the least, I would much rather you comment on the post rather than in an email. I think adding to the discussion publicly is beneficial to anybody who happens to read this blog. Thanks!***

P.S. You’re wrong.

It’s been a long time since I’ve fired off a good woodworking rant, but I have something I need to get off my chest.

I read a blog post from Paul Sellers last night on the restoration of a Jack Plane, among other things, but those are really not the aspects of the post that I wish to address. The very first sentence of the post poses the question: “Should planes arrive sharp and ready to go, or are we expecting something that is really of little if any consequence?” He then goes on to say that at one time nobody expected woodworking or carpentry tools to show up fully refined and ready to go, and that all woodworking tools will usually need to be sharpened fairly quickly.

I have a big problem with this mindset for two reasons.

One, why shouldn’t we expect a brand new tool to have a certain level of refinement to it? This has nothing to do with “skills deterioration” among the populace, or the ever so popular “nobody knows how to do anything anymore.” It’s the simple fact that when you purchase something, you aren’t just purchasing it with your money, you are much more importantly purchasing it with your time. I’m not idly rich, and I suspect most people will say the same. All of the money I have wasn’t left to me in a will, or won in a lottery ticket, it was earned by selling my skills and time to my employer. If I purchase a tool that requires 3 hours to get into proper working condition, that tool not only cost the purchase price (and time spent at work earning that money of course) but it also cost me three additional hours of labor. And I am sure somebody will say that there are certain tools that can be purchased which are basically ready to go, I’m not denying that, and that isn’t the point. The point is, nobody should be left off the hook for selling, or recommending, a tool that isn’t really a tool until the end user spends hours making it into one…”But it’s a learning experience! You will learn the all too valuable skills of sharpening and tool repair and refinement!” That statement leads me to my second gripe.

Inexpensive and/or used tools that need restoration and refinement are often recommended to new woodworkers because of the perceived monetary savings and the perceived skill building they offer. BS. I’ve said this before and I will say it again. If you are a new to amateur furniture making, and like most you’ve never had a woodworking or carpentry apprenticeship, or even a high school level shop class, how in the world are you supposed to know how a refined tool should actually function? In my opinion, a frame of reference is needed in a tool restoration (and when you are restoring other things as well, not just tools). Without this frame of reference, your hours of work may be making very little difference, or in the worst case, actually ruining the tool you are trying to fix. And no, books alone aren’t going to get you there, not even close. Nor will videos; hand tools work very much on feel. Just like you can’t learn how to paint solely by watching an artist work, you cannot learn to sharpen and tune woodworking tools solely by watching somebody else sharpen and tune them.

If I can add my two cents to the mix, I would highly recommend to any new woodworker who is interested in using traditional tools to purchase one each of a high quality plane, chisel, and saw, that way they know from the get-go exactly how those tools should function when tuned to a high level. I cannot think of anything more moronic than telling a new woodworker to purchase the cheapest tools available, or to hunt down used tools, and then spend hours trying to get them working. If that is how a new woodworker wants to spend his or her time then who am I to argue, but if that new woodworker wants to spend more time learning to make furniture and not restoring tools then there are much better ways to go about it. Here again, I’m not telling anybody what tools to use or how much to spend; for God’s sake use whatever tools you like and can afford, and do whatever makes you happy. But in this case, it is my opinion that the expert advice is dead wrong.

I’m almost positive I’ve written about this same topic years ago, which in a way is disheartening, because here we are years later and there is still much confusing information being floated. If you’ve ever wondered why I am the “Slightly Confused Woodworker” then look no further. Years ago, when I first decided to make furniture at home, I found the amount of conflicting advice being offered by “experts” to be almost comical. And for the record, I have to add that I have absolutely nothing against Paul Sellers in the least. I think he is a phenomenal woodworker and does a great job on his YouTube channel providing entertaining and sound information. But nobody is perfect, and in this case I think his years of experience and skill work against him, because I believe he is basing his assumptions on his own experiences and exceptional skill set, and not necessarily putting himself into the position, mindset, and skillset of a completely new and amateur woodworker who may never even get to take a class, let alone receive any real training and education. I understand that Sellers has taught classes for years, including amateurs, but that doesn’t invalidate my opinion, because teachers of all subjects can sometimes fall into this trap. In fact, there are often seminars for teachers to help keep them from doing this very thing. And it is my belief that the more skilled the teacher is in his or her field, the easier it is for them to fall into the trap.

As I’ve repeated ad nauseum, I no longer subscribe to professional woodworking blogs or magazines, and the opinions I’ve offered in this post are one of the reasons why. For all I know, blog posts similar to the one I read last night may be all over the internet. But I just so happened to see this one, and for the first time in a long time I felt the need to offer a rebuttal.

The Arsenal of Democracy

Nearly every woodworker at some point is given tools by a well-meaning friend or family member; it just happens. I’m long past the point of needing more tools, though I will point out that I am not a subscriber to the “too many tools” doctrine. I will always maintain that if you have the space to keep them, and the time to maintain them, then knock yourself out and keep as many tools on hand as you like. Personally, I have very little space and even less time, so it is very rare that I will accept a tool that I do not need, but last year, I made an exception.

Just about this time last year I entered my workplace and one of my coworkers was sitting at his desk with a large box of tools, hoping that I would take some of them. If I remember correctly there were Stanley #4, #5, and #7 planes, a few #78 rabbet planes, several squares, Stanley chisels, several Disston handsaws, and dozens of other assorted clamps, screwdrivers, files, wrenches, and hammers. There was nothing in that box that I needed, but I was touched by the thoughtful gesture, so I took two of the squares (which I have already restored), and the Stanley #5 plane. I already have a Lie Nielsen #5, but the Stanley caught my eye because it had a hard rubber adjustment knob and steel tipped screws to hold the tote and knob. I’m hardly an expert, but I knew enough to recognize that I had in my hands a Type 17 World War 2 era plane. During World War 2, when brass was needed for the war effort, Stanley used other materials, in the case of this tool, steel and hard rubber. And, I confirmed all of this by referencing the serial number under the lever cap, among other details, which you can find on the website.

But the reason I am writing this post is because my co-worker was able to give me an actual backstory of the history of these tools.

Early in 2020, my co-worker’s friend’s father passed away; I can happily say that he lived a very long and productive life. With the lockdowns occurring shortly after his funeral, it wasn’t until the summer that the family could clear out his home. He worked for the famous Bethlehem Steel Corporation, which was an enormous steel and ship manufacturer for much of the 20th century, and one of the largest companies in what President Franklin Roosevelt referred to as “The Arsenal of Democracy”. He began his career there shortly after high school, just as war began raging in Europe. After several years he began training as a patternmaker (I believe his plant specialized in bridge making), and it was then that he began purchasing his tool collection, which from what I was told was large enough that it took an entire trailer to haul away. Not long after he started his new training the United States entered the war. He continued his work, with his plant building large naval guns. On a side note, there apparently was a little joke in the industry that the famous battle ship USS New Jersey should have been called the Pennsylvania because much of it was constructed at the plant right in Bethlehem PA.

Though he was considered an essential skilled worker in the war industry and exempt from the draft, like many of the young men of his era, he could not resist the call to arms, and enlisted in the US Navy early in 1944. After the war ended he returned home at some point in 1946, returned to the Bethlehem Steel Corporation to his career, got married and started a family. He continued working for Bethlehem Steel until the early 1980s, when he retired and turned his attention to making furniture and restoring antiques.

So when I took the #5 plane from the box that my co-worker had brought with him, I considered it more than just a tool, but also a small part of history. It was very easy to see that the tool had seen heavy use. It was dirty and rusty, but the iron was properly ground, and still a bit sharp, which to me clearly indicated that the owner knew what he was doing. More good news: the sole of the plane had very little rust and was very flat. So I brought the plane home, placed it in a cabinet in the garage, and a few weeks back I finally got around to cleaning it up.

Whenever I clean up and restore an old tool, I’m always torn as to how far to take it. I try to take the Thomas Johnson approach whenever I can, which is to clean it up, get it looking nice and in working order, but don’t do anymore than is necessary to accomplish the restoration. I didn’t want this tool to look brand spanking new, nor did I want it to look beat up. So I took apart the entire tool and soaked every metal piece for 24 hours in Evaporust (a great product by the way). While the tool was soaking I sanded down the knob and tote, and this is where I’m always unsure of myself. Do I sand it down to bare wood? Or do I clean it up enough to where a new varnish can be applied? I’ve done both in the past, but for this tool I decided to not sand down to bare wood, but to leave as much of the character as possible.

After the metal parts were finished soaking I gave them a bath in warm water and dish soap, I then used a steel brush attachment in the drill press to clean them all even further. I filed the corners, and then sanded the body of the plane with 320g and 600g, cleaning it nicely but not overdoing it. The sole of the plane, which I mentioned is amazingly flat, only needed a light sanding to clean. I got the iron to the point that it will take easily take a shaving in pine, but I think I am going to really go to town on it at some point next weekend, and get it as razor sharp as my skills will allow. I finished the knob and tote with 3 coats of Birchwood Casey oil, lightly buffing with 4/0 steel wool between coats, the only thing worth noting is that it is very humid this time of year, so I waited 48 hours between each coat where I would normally wait just 24.

After I finished the restoration I took a photo and sent it to my co-worker, who forwarded it to his friend. He later told me that his friend became choked up at seeing the tool in working order again. As strange as this may sound, I don’t want to keep the tool, and I would be happy to ship it back to the family. I mentioned this to my co-worker, and when he told his friend what I had said he was adamant that I keep it. But I’m not going to accept that. This tool belongs with them, not in my garage. Perhaps one of his grandchildren will want it when they are old enough. I already have plenty of tools to leave to my grandkids when that day comes. So once I get the iron where I want it I’m going to do my utmost to get it sent back home where it belongs. I was just happy to have a very small part in the long history of this tool, and I am glad that I was able to at least somewhat make this honorable tool look how it deserves to look.

The plane before the restoration. The shape of the frog and the kidney shaped hole on the lever cap (tough to see in this photo) are indicators of the Type 17. From what I could find out from the son of the original owner, he believes it was purchased at some point in 1943.

Another before picture…I rarely take them so I may as well show them off..
After the restoration. The plane looks much better and is a working tool now.

The two squares I cleaned up.

I’m often inspired by curtains.

The Inspirational curtains.

Sometimes we build things because we are inspired by something we saw. Sometimes we build things because we feel the need to build. And sometimes we build things out of necessity. My latest project was born out of necessity.

I have been on a reading kick lately that has not been rivaled since I was a young boy. Subsequently, my book collection, which was already quite large, has grown to the point that it can no longer be contained. The closet in our spare bedroom/home office has become the latest storage area, and the shelf system I built for it has become an ersatz extension of my library, with two and a half of the five shelves containing spill over books. Last week I decided that enough was enough, and something had to be done, and oddly enough, it was the curtains I use to conceal the contents of the closet that served as an inspiration in the construction of a small bookshelf.

Quite a few years ago I made a shelf system for the spare bedroom closet that took up approximately 1/3rd of the total closet width, with the rest having a typical closet rod for clothes. Those shelves were supposed to hold items such as spare silverware and linens, but my books slowly crept in, like locusts, until they took up half of the shelf space. Originally the closet had two, cheap sliding doors, which I removed not long after we moved into the house. Because the geniuses who framed our house framed the closet openings to finish size without taking into account the trim boards, it is impossible to find off-the-shelf closet doors that will fit into the opening. For one of the other bedroom closets I actually purchased closet doors and trimmed them to fit, which literally took days, partly because my skill as a trim carpenter is average at best, and partly because trimming 2 inches around from bifold doors involves re-routing hinges, and re-setting dowels etc. which is a lot more difficult than it sounds. Regardless, the closet in the spare bedroom has two curtains which when closed look like a bookshelf; I really like the look. So as strange is this may seem, I based my little bookshelf off of the print on the curtains.

The bookshelf print on the curtains isn’t really overly unique, but the shelves have a shallow groove routed into the front that I decided to mimic. I wanted the bookshelf to be 34 inches tall and 15 inches wide so that it would be the same height as the top of my campaign desk and fit next to it snugly. Most importantly, I wanted this to be a quick project, something I could build and finish in a few days time. Now, for the sake of full disclosure I will freely admit that I initially attempted to buy a bookshelf that would fit in the space I had set aside, but I couldn’t find one that I liked, or at least I couldn’t find one that I liked and that would fit into the area where I needed it to fit. So a few days before Independence Day I picked up (2) 1 x 12 x 72in pine boards from the home center along with a 4×4 sheet of 1/4 inch plywood along with a small container of Minwax walnut stain. Total cost, including tax, was around $90.00. The Monday after Independence Day was a work holiday for me, so that was when the bulk of the construction was completed.

The case has three shelves, dadoed into the case sides, with the top shelf open and shallower than the others, which I may use to display a portrait or some other decorative items. I glued and nailed trim at the top of the case to hide the end grain, and the plywood for the back was nailed into a rabbet. And to stiffen up the case even more so I also nailed the plywood backer into the shelves. But the only aspect of the construction I would like to mention in any real detail is the use of pocket holes joinery

I’ve used pocket hole joinery here and there, mainly to make the occasional face frame. Unlike some woodworkers, I have nothing against using pocket holes/screws. Some view it as blasphemy, in particular the keyboard warriors on the internet forums (if you ever want to be lectured on Japanese hand planes by an accountant from Ohio then internet woodworking forums are the place for you) But as far as I’m concerned, do whatever works for you. However, I guess I am something of a snob, too, because I shied away from pocket screws as well. The one place I do often use them are as clamps for glue ups; the pan heads on the screws do a nice job in that task. And, they work well for repairs, as it is easy to drill out a pocket in an inconspicuous place to add a mechanical fastener along with the glue joint.

With that all being said, on this project I used pocket screws to add two “stops”, for lack of a better word, at the back of the two interior shelves. Because the back of the bookcase is just 1/4 inch plywood held with finish nails, I wanted something to keep the books from pushing against it. So I cut two cleats, added a chamfer to each, and used pocket screws to fasten them to the case sides. Not only will the stops protect the plywood backer, I believe they also add to the overall appearance and strength of the bookshelf. I then used pocket screws to attach the backer of the top shelf, which was initially just a friction fit in a shallow dado. I had planned on nailing it from the outside, instead I used pocket hole joinery, which was then hidden by the plywood backer.

Today I gave the case an overall light sanding and planed down anything that was protruding, also adding light chamfering on all of the corners. I then applied the walnut finish and one coat of Sam Maloof poly/oil blend, tomorrow I will apply a second coat and call it done. Though the instructions on the can recommend three coats, I don’t want the case to be too shiny, and two coats are plenty for where this bookcase is being placed.

Overall I enjoyed this project. Building a “down and dirty” bookcase on my day off wasn’t necessarily what I had in mind, but in the end it was worth it. One of the nice things about having a few tools and some basic furniture making skills is being able to quickly make a bookshelf that looks half-decent and fits where it needs to fit. Less than $100 and a few hours of my time and I was able to fill a need. And of all things, it was a printed pair of curtains that gave me the kick I needed to get it done.

The nearly completed bookshelf…needs one more coat of poly/oil.
Shelf filled with books..

One of my proudest moments.

There’s an old saying: “The shoemaker’s children go barefoot.” Which I suppose is a not so subtle dig at our tendency to at times neglect the people, and things, closest to us.

We moved into our home 18 years ago, and like many newly married people we were neck deep in home renovations in an attempt to make the house our own. There was little that went untouched…except for one item, which was the vanity in our upstairs bathroom. And why should we have messed with it? It was in good condition and it was functional. Well, it did have one issue; the two front doors which are under the sink overlap, meaning that the door on the left has a small flap which the door on the right closes against. The door on the right always stuck, just a touch, but it was not enough to bother either my wife or myself. I was a field electrician for years, and I can say (knock on wood) that electrically my house is in good shape. BUT, I also occasionally build furniture, and I have a nice set of tools that work just as well for carpentry as they do for cabinet making, and there are probably a few things around the house that I, a person with half-decent carpentry skills, have definitely neglected.

So, just a few months ago I noticed that the drawer of the vanity had a progressively worsening crack where the drawer face attached to the drawer box. I had some good quality ½ inch plywood handy which was left over from a repair of a kitchen drawer box which my daughter had accidentally broken, so I rebuilt the vanity drawer box using basic dado and groove construction. It turned out nicely, but the drawer front was a bit misshapen, so I used a spare piece of poplar to replace it. I even managed to shape it using a block plane so it looked pretty much like the original drawer. Once I did the test fit and was pleased, I primed and painted the drawer and I was very proud of the repair, because it did not look like a repair at all, like any good repair should. BUT…Once the drawer was installed I noticed the new white paint was a touch brighter than the rest of the cabinet…I think you can tell where this is going.

Over the course of a weekend I virtually rebuilt the entire cabinet, or at the least you can call it a major refurbishing, including new hardware and hinges, new baseboard trim and cove made with PVC, and a newly constructed door. Hell, I even sanded down the interior and gave it two coats of paste wax, which surprisingly looks pretty good. However, one aspect of the rehab was still not correct, the right door still stuck, almost imperceptibly, even after my careful measuring and hinge layout. It was a Sunday night, fairly late, and I decided to leave well enough alone. At 1 am, after not being able to sleep a wink, I went into the garage, grabbed the block plane, and spent 15 minutes carefully planing the door so that it would not stick, while also creating as close to a perfectly even gap/reveal as I could achieve. Afterwards, I applied some touch up paint as our curious cat watched me work, wondering what I was doing at nearly two in the morning.

I don’t say this to brag, because I am not a boastful person, but I have made a piece or two of furniture over the past years that I am very proud to have made and have in my home. But I am just as proud of the modest rehab of a modest cabinet than I would be if I had built a Philadelphia Highboy. It was an absolute pleasure spending a weekend, Memorial Day Weekend actually, giving new life to a part of our home. To paraphrase Ron Swanson, it was a feeling of pride and accomplishment, using the skills and tools I have gathered over the course of my adulthood. It was looking at something that needed to be fixed, and having the know-how and supplies to do it. It was being self-reliant. I cannot stress just how great a feeling it is, to those of you who maybe have never experienced it, and I highly recommend it. In fact, it may just be one of the greatest experiences in your life, as hyperbolic as that may sound. But, to end on a cliché: the little things….sometimes they can mean an awful lot.

The nearly finished vanity. This photo was taken before the middle door was perfectly fitted and before any touch up paint was applied. The door on the far right was completely rebuilt, which is why it is a hair thicker than the other doors. Sorry about the lighting…I took this photo late at night.

So, what’s in your pocket?

I was/am a big fan of the television show Mythbusters. Even though the final episode aired more than 5 years ago my daughter and I still watch it ‘on demand’ every Sunday night as if it were still going. I also subscribe to the YouTube channel of former Mythbuster, Adam Savage. Just last week I happened to watch an episode, which was a few years old, where Savage shows the items that he carries with him in his pockets every day. I found it interesting only because the list of things I shove in my pocket every morning before I go to work are eerily similar to what Adam Savage carries with him on a daily basis as well. So I thought it would be interesting to show the items I deem “essential” to my day, and hopefully compare them to some of the things that the fine readers of this blog happen to carry around.

And, for clarity’s sake, “in my pocket” means that I have it on my person. It’s not necessarily in my pants pocket, and could be on a belt clip, etc. So with that out of the way, here are the items:

Sorry, for the life of me the photo would not rotate.

Top to bottom:

  1. Case ‘Trapper’ knife. To be completely honest, the Case knife I do not bring with me to work, it is the pocket knife I carry outside of my job, but it is in my pocket at some point nearly every day.
  2. My Keyport “swiss army keys”, which besides holding the keys to my home, car, and office, also has a small jack knife and multi-tool.
  3. Carpenter’s pencil…for obvious reasons. Mildly interesting side note, the pencil in the photo is probably 20+ years old.
  4. Leatherman “Wave” multi-tool. I love this thing, it is light, tough as nails, easy to use, and always does the job. I only wear this tool at I said the Case knife is the one I keep on me on off hours.
  5. Cross fine point pen. I always…ALWAYS…have a nice pen with me while at work.
  6. Field Notes note book. Once again for obvious reasons, because sometimes you just need to write things down.
  7. Klein wire strippers/cutters. I deal with small gauge wire sometimes, and this tool is perfect for that job, they are lightweight and compact. Mildly interesting side note, these are the first wire strippers I ever purchased and are at least 20 years old.
  8. Seiko chronograph. Seiko is my favorite brand of wristwatch; they are good quality and relatively inexpensive. Chronograph “pilot” watches are my favorite style, which is somewhat ironic because I hate flying.
  9. Stanley 150th anniversary tape measure. I actually just started carrying this one around because sadly the Stanley 12 footer that I carried with me for years finally broke.
  10. My wallet, because Captain America can’t leave the house without his wallet.

    While there is nothing on this list which is all that impressive, it is nearly identical to the items Adam Savage carried. He did not have wire strippers, nor did he keep his notebook in a fancy leather case like I do, but otherwise the lists were quite similar.
    There is actually one other item I carry with me almost at work every day, but of course I did not have it with me at the time of the photo….

My old folding rule…still not exactly sure where I got it.

I also carry this folding rule with me on most days for one reason: that little hook. I love that hook. I actually toyed with the idea of trying to make one for my Klein folding rule with the brass extender but I was afraid that I would ruin it in the process.

So that’s my list. Though there is certainly nothing fancy here, these are the things I keep with me every day and that I would probably feel naked without. I am wondering if anybody out there has a similar list of items that they carry with them to work every day, and that like me, they would feel naked without. Let me know, if you like.

Musings on and from making a small box.

Before it became a DMZ, one of my family’s seasonal rituals used to be visiting Washington D.C. We would make at least two trips a year, one during Springtime and one in the Fall. Those trips usually coincided with something we had set up: A Visit to the Capitol, the White House, Mt Vernon, or a seasonal event. Of course we did not limit our scope to just one site, and we would visit the museums, monuments, and other government buildings. On one such trip we visited the Library of Congress ( a beautiful building both inside and out) and at the gift shop my daughter picked out a small, cardboard replica of a vintage library card catalog which contains copies of the original files/notes used to organize the books. I was actually quite impressed with the quality of those notes, so I decided that at some point I would make a little filing box to hold them. That point arrived over the past weekend.

I don’t want to talk much about the box or its construction. As I have said before, there are only so many ways to describe building a dovetailed box, and they’ve likely all been done many times over; the box turned out nicely enough, which is what counts. I do, however, want to talk about the oak I used to make the box. I have written, or complained depending on your point of view, regarding the use of this material several times on this blog. Red oak, from a home center at least, is very hard and very brittle, and when cutting dovetails the fit has to be very precise, a precision that really tests the extent of my mediocre woodworking abilities to their limit. I will say this again and again, this wood does not compress even a little, and I spent more than three hours fine tuning the dovetails to achieve a decent fit, because a pin just slightly oversized driven into its socket can easily split the tail board, which is a point I cannot stress too much. This wood is so hard that the Narex birdcage awl that I use, which you can twist right through a piece of pine, would barely dent it. This is not hyperbole…the awl would hardly make a mark, let alone a pilot hole.  I am happy to report that the joints were all tight and nearly gap free. There was one minor issue on one of the tail sockets, where a miss-hit with a chisel left a little ding that luckily came out when I planed down the box to its final size. Overall, the construction of the box was time consuming but trouble free.

The drawer is simple dado construction, with ¼ inch oak plywood serving as the back and bottom. I used 1/4 inch plywood rather than 1/2 inch oak on the drawer back to create some more depth as well as to lighten it. The drawer sides are solid oak, but they are approximately 2/3rds the width of the drawer face, once again to keep the drawer weight down. The finish was very traditional: two coats of BLO and a coat of soft wax, which I will re-apply every day for the next 4 days. Considering that this is just a desk top piece that should not see much handling the wax finish is all it should need for protection.

This project was made with hand tools except for two exceptions. The hole for the drawer was made with a Forstner bit on a drill press, and the top and bottom boards of the box were machined up on the table saw several months ago. Those boards originally were from a glued up panel I made to serve as the base/bottom of a small, lap-top writing desk I made last year. I felt that it looked too clunky and made the desk too heavy both in appearance and in weight, so I used a different material, and ripped the unused panel into 3 pieces of equal size just for the off-chance that I could use them elsewhere. The good news is that I am almost completely out of the red oak, and the bad news is the same. In fact, I am short of stock in general. I have approximately 12 board feet of Walnut, the same in Cherry, and a small shelf of off-cuts of a variety of species. As most of you know, the prices of wood, in all species apparently, has increased dramatically, so much so that I don’t see myself making any lumber purchases any time soon.

And now that I have thoroughly complained about using red oak in quite a few blog posts, strangely enough, I have found that I kind of like the look of it, at least on a small scale. This the the 3rd project built from red oak in my ersatz series using the wood, and I can say without a hint of sarcasm that it looks…alright. On a full sized piece of furniture I likely wouldn’t have the same opinion, but on small projects like this one it seems to work. In fact, I joked to my wife that I should market the lap desk, sliding lid box, and this project as a late 18th century desk set.

The box, next to its inspiration, after the first coat of wax…still needs to be buffed out in this photo. You can see that I reversed the pins and tails…in this instance the sides of the box should technically have the tails, theoretically making the box stronger when lifted..though in a box of this size it really doesn’t matter.
With the library pull tab installed. I will add a little placard once the box has all of its wax coats applied.
A side view of the box. I added this photo to highlight the grain…not because it is particularly special, but because it is especially grain like this in red oak that makes it split so easily. I spent much longer than I wanted to carefully fitting the dovetails because I knew exactly what would happen if I did not.
After 4 coats of wax. I added this photo after the fact only because I was a bit surprised to find that a tiny sliver of paper made such a big difference in the overall “finished” appearance of the box.
It just occurred to me that I didn’t post a photo of the box with its drawer here you go. Drawer construction was fairly simple: 3 grooves with a plywood bottom inserted…the sides are a dadoed glue joint, the back panel is held with 3 cut nails…it’s very solid.

Now that this little project is finished I have to admit that I am disappointed, not in the box, which turned out just fine, but in the fact that I had finally found some time to make something and it was just a small souvenir replica. The truth is that I wanted to make a version of a small, campaign style chest of drawers which was very briefly shown resting on Indiana Jones’ desk in the last film of the series, but unfortunately I don’t have material or hardware that is suitable to do justice to the project. I am an admitted Indiana Jones geek, and I have quite a bit of memorabilia, some that I’ve made and some that I’ve purchased and/or modified. I even had a plan put on my authentic Indy outfit and pose for the blog, but perhaps some other time.

Yet, after this latest session, seven hours or so on a concrete floor, I found my knees and back hurting quite badly. Worse, even my hands were feeling tender after the project was completed. As I have repeated ad nauseum: I have no more room in my home for full sized pieces of furniture, and now it seems that I have run out of ideas and material for small projects as well. So in an effort to keep my idle hands occupied and my knees healthy, while enjoying a hobby that I can practice any time of year on any table in my house with materials that should always be readily available and relatively inexpensive, last month I purchased the modest tools and supplies used for an endeavor that I hope to begin next month. If I am successful I will probably detail it on this very blog. If I fail….well just forget that I brought it up.

When you can’t afford to experiment..

At this time last year I found myself working from home for the first time ever. Working from home had its benefits and drawbacks; the main drawback arising from my need to physically see and inspect construction materials, which I could obviously not do while sitting in my little home office. The benefits, however, weren’t too shabby, among them was an unprecedented amount of free time to spend with my daughter, as well as the free time to complete many home projects both large and small that I had put off for some time. Since I have been physically back to work since last May, some of those projects were left unfinished, and now that the weather has finally turned it is time to finish them…or is it?

I have been in the construction industry for more than 20 years, as an electrician and on the supply side. I have never seen the price of construction materials rise as high as they are at this very moment. At first, it seemed that these increases were only going to drastically affect the electrical industry, where commodities such as copper, aluminum, steel, and PVC conduit have always experienced price fluctuations, but now I have seen it spread to every other building trade. Prices have increased 300%-500% in many commodity items, including wood and dimensional lumber. I found this out first hand a few weeks ago. I made a quick stop at the local big-box store to purchase a 1×4 poplar board to use as baseboard trim and I was quite surprised at the cost. And while I was there, I was also going to pick up a 4×4 sheet of ½ inch birch plywood and a few other odds and ends to mock up a small piece of furniture I hope to make ( I don’t want to reveal what I am making just yet as I plan on doing a mini “photo shoot” for the blog ) The cost for the mock up materials alone, including hardware, would have amounted to almost $100, so I put most of it back on the shelves and pieced together the list from materials I already had at home.

I generally do not mock-up projects, but because I would like to build this little project from a good quality hardwood such as Walnut or Cherry, I wanted to make all of the mistakes with material that is inexpensive….or at least used to be. Last year at this time I estimate that my little design, made from hardwood and including hardware, would have cost me approximately $100 in materials, this year that cost has close to tripled, I confirmed this last night. I’m not an economist, and I refuse to get political, but I know why this is happening. However, the “why” isn’t nearly as important as the aftermath. When the cost of building materials skyrockets, building slows down, and when building slows down, historically a lot of other aspects of the economy slow down along with it.

As I said, I have never seen costs rise so high, so quickly, not in my time in the business. If this doesn’t worry people then it should. In some cases, high quality woodworking tools are even less expensive than wood. FAS flat sawn Walnut is running $13-$20 per board foot depending. Maybe it’s been higher in the past, but I can’t recall when, at least not since I’ve been making furniture. But, even common woods such as Pine and Poplar have not been immune to large increases.

As I have said in the past, since I no longer need to build any full-sized furniture for my home, I have been very carefully choosing my projects. These projects have been mostly smaller items that are relatively inexpensive to make. Because of the low costs involved I was free to experiment, make mistakes, try new techniques and designs, and for lack of a better phrase, screw around if I wanted to. Well, it seems those days are over for the time being, and if my past experiences are any indication, this “time being” could very well be a lot longer than any that most of us have ever experienced.


Though I spent 12 years in parochial school, I would never claim piety as a personality trait. And though I would claim to be spiritual, to an extent, I cannot in honesty claim that woodworking or furniture making has ever been a religious experience for me. With that out of the way, I can say that religion inspires me, and woodworking inspires me, and I am also inspired by history, and sometimes, these passions conspire and it leads to something a little out of my norm.

Being a major history geek has its advantages, mainly when watching ‘Jeopardy’. But I love to read history books, and I literally own hundreds of them. I also watch history programs in all of their forms: documentary, dramatized, series, etc. One of my favorites was ‘John Adams’ on HBO. During the second episode of that series there is a dramatized account of John Adams’ family being inoculated for small pox. During that scene, an infected teenaged boy is the unfortunate donor for the doctor performing the inoculations. The boy, who appears to be near death, is clutching a rustic cross, bound with what looks to be hemp twine. I did some research on such crosses, and it seems that they would be commonplace among colonial American families. These crosses were often home made, perhaps blessed by the local minister, and would be used for home services in particular when the weather was too harsh to travel on Sunday. This appealed to me, and I decided to make one for my home.

From what I found, these crosses would generally have been made with a ship lap joint and bound with rope, in particular when no glue was available. Many of the examples I found online were, for lack of a better word, crude, in that the joint was not necessarily tight, nor the wood dressed, but, they had a certain rustic beauty to them that I wanted to emulate.

For my cross, I wanted the joint to be as seamless as I could get, to give the appearance of two sections of wood that had grown together. But to keep it somewhat rustic and true to history, I gave the edges some character by using a chisel and a knife to add chamfering that wasn’t completely symmetrical. I did not go overboard, though, because I don’t care for built-in “character”, and I firmly believe that a piece of furniture, or in this case, a cross, should develop character over the years.

So a traditional ship-lap joint held with typical carpenter’s glue…sounds fairly simple, right?

Let me say that getting this joint to fit neatly was not nearly as simple as it sounds. The scrap board was not straight or square, in fact, it had a touch of bark still on it. I spent a good hour carefully planing the board to size, and chiseling out the saw kerfs, and squaring the bottom of the joint. I made the depth a touch shallower than the thickness of the crossing piece so it could be planed to final size. The joint was tight, but even with all of my careful layout and chiseling, there was still a small gap, approximately the width of the knife used to mark the joint dimensions. When planed down it mostly disappeared. Yet, on even such a seemingly simple project careful lay out and a steady hand are utterly needed. As I’ve always said, smaller projects are at times far more difficult than large pieces of furniture, for every little mistake is magnified.

I applied 3 coats of Birchwood Casey oil over the course of the past weekend. Traditionally the cross would be bound with cord. I bound it, though I am not sure whether to keep it that way or not; I will decide later. But regardless of the final appearance, I thoroughly enjoyed this project, so much so that I’ve already started to make another in walnut. As I said at the beginning of the post, I am not pious, but religion does play a role in my life. During this project I felt inspired, and though I won’t make any other claims, it made me happy, and that was enough.

Cross after one coat of finish and bound. This phot was taken in my garage where the lighting is poor.

Cross with 3 coats of finish. I did my best to keep the joint tight.

If I were you I probably wouldn’t try this…

I use a leg vise on my workbench. As far a vises go I generally would say it does a great job. Leg vises are easy to make, easy to install, offer a lot of clamping power, and are relatively simple to use. Leg vises are also somewhat more versatile than many typical face vises. The position of the screw of the vise on my bench is a full 12 inches from the benchtop. This leaves a very large clamping area that not only provides a lot of clamping power, it allows me to clamp very wide boards if need be. All in all, I believe that leg vises are among the most practical and sound vises a woodworker can have. But, they do have one supposed drawback…

Leg vises traditionally use a parallel guide which “rides” in a mortise in the leg of the workbench. This guide, which usually has a series of holes drilled in preset increments, not only keeps the chop of the vise from spinning as the screw is turned, it also acts as a fulcrum point. The fulcrum is usually a pin or dowel of some type, and that pin or dowel is set in the hole of the parallel guide which most closely corresponds to the width of the board being clamped. When working with material up to one inch wide, or thick if you will, this pin will rarely need to be adjusted, but when working with thicker stock I’ve found that it usually needs to be moved every time the material increases by roughly 1/2 inch. It seems when using wider material, or clamping a board face up for example, it becomes much more important to use the pin hole that most closely matches the material width.

For the most part, none of this has never been a problem. But what has been a problem lately, for myself, has been my hands. My left hand in particular has been experiencing many issues, which I believe I touched on in a prior post. Not long ago, if I wanted to adjust the pin in the parallel guide, I simply reached down, pulled it out, and readjusted as needed. Now, I can barely hold a pencil in my hand on some days, and getting a decent grip on 1/2 inch oak dowel that is also waxed is no longer easy for me. The first idea I had to remedy the issue was just using a large screw driver as the fulcrum. That worked somewhat, but it also damaged the guide, which is Oak, and the bench leg, which is Fir. I knew that continued use would make things much worse, so I went back to the oak dowel which always worked. But this time I glued that oak dowel into a 1 1/2 inch oak dowel to use as a grip. This solution gave a large handle to grip, but it also looked pretty cheesy. So because I had off from work today, and because it is frigid outside, and because I was bored, I decided to attempt to make that handle look as though a half-decent woodworker made it.

The pin and handle in my drill press, roughly shaped with a rat-tail rasp and sandpaper.

I wanted to shape the handle to make it look more like…something…and less like a dowel. Because I knew from personal experience that shaping a home center oak dowel by hand takes a long, long time, and because I do not own a lathe, I came up with the bright, or not so bright, idea to put the contraption in the chuck of my drill press and see if I could shape it with a rasp. I knew this would be potentially dangerous, so I took every precaution, including using a Covid face shield as well as a dust mask.

I did a few test runs and it seemed okay. The main issue was the wobble, which I understood was going to occur. Though the dowel (s) were perfectly perpendicular, there was no real way to control the wobble of the piece as it spun, which became pronounced around 2 inches from the bottom. I tried to steady it with a nail hammered into a clamped piece of pine but it kept slipping out, so I did the best with what I had. Surprisingly this didn’t go too badly. I used a rat-tail vice to make the “beads” and I used sandpaper, 150g and 220g, to shape and taper the handle.

Linseed oil and wax applied, the taper is subtle but difficult to see in the photo.

When the shaping was finished I left the dowel in the drill press and applied linseed oil to seal it. This is an oddly satisfying task, seeing the dowel darken as it quickly spun. This finish application method is also very thorough, as any person who has used a lathe will tell you. I waited an hour or so for the linseed oil to dry and then applied soft wax, once again using the drill press for the application and the buffing. This worked brilliantly, and the handle was sparkling. The soft wax does not hinder the grip on the large handle, at least I’ve never had an issue considering that I coat all of my tool handles with it.

The finished handle set in the parallel guide of the leg vise. The taper is slightly more evident here.

I have to say I was pleasantly surprise by the outcome of this little project. Now, if we compare this work against a handle properly turned on a lathe it of course won’t look like much, but it doesn’t look horrible, and it actually works, so I’m going to count that as a victory. And, I actually had some fun by experimenting, and in the end that is all that really matters.

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