The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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April 2021
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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.

Cross

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.

Learning to let go in the new year.

The past few weekends I did the unthinkable: I purged tools. In fact, I purged a lot of tools, a boatload of them. I purged so many tools that it made a noticeable difference in the appearance of the wall rack that sits above my workbench; so much so that I took it down and replaced it with a much smaller version.

In the interest of full disclosure, most of the tools that I purged were not woodworking tools. My former job as a press operator, and my second act as a field electrician left me with waaaay too many tools. I had duplicate and triplicate screwdrivers, allen keys, open and closed-end wrenches, ratchets, pliers, and wire strippers. However, I did part ways with a fair amount of woodworking tools as well, including several planes, drawknives, saws, and a few chisels. All in all I would estimate that I said goodbye to more than 200 individual tools. I had no use for them, no need to keep them, and most importantly, no desire to keep them.

So what led to the purge? The simple answer is that I am attempting to empty my garage of any extraneous stuff. The “deeper” answer may be found in the one New Year’s tradition that I’ve kept up with for the past 15 years.

Not too long after I got married, PBS aired the documentary ‘Alone in the Wilderness’, featuring the exploits of Richard Proenneke, who back in 1968 built a cabin in the remote Twin Lakes area of Alaska and eventually stayed there for 35 years. Something about seeing Proenneke in action struck a chord that has been ringing, sometimes softly, sometimes loudly, ever since.

Wall tool rack shrunk by three quarters…nearly every woodworking tool I use is now on the wall or under it on the bench.

I’ve written about Proenneke on this blog (more than) several times, about how he is possibly the person who most inspired me to pick up the hobby of woodworking. Proenneke is often considered a modern day Henry David Thoreau, though I don’t think that does him justice, because for my money he was a much more thorough Thoreau. My bad pun notwithstanding, if you’ve never seen ‘Alone in the Wilderness’, or read any of Proenneke’s journals, I would highly recommend that you do so.

That all being said, after I saw that documentary, I immediately purchased it from PBS along with the corresponding book, ‘One Man’s Wilderness’, which is a reprint of a book written by Sam Keith and published in 1973. ‘One Man’s Wilderness’ is taken directly from the journals of Proenneke, though Keith abridged and paraphrased them to his liking. I remember vividly reading that book from cover to cover on New Year’s Day, 2005.

After re-reading the book and re-watching the documentary several times, I wasn’t satisfied, and I actually called the Lake Clarke NPS asking if they had any more information on Proenneke. I was told that a printing of Proenneke’s journals was in the works, and that I would be contacted when it was published. Sure enough, at the end of the year I received an actual answering machine message (remember those) telling me that the journal was ready and they had actually held a copy for me. I received it in January, though not on New Year’s Day, and spent the next few weeks reading it. The new journal, ‘More Readings from One Man’s Wilderness’ became my go-to New Year’s Day reading for the next few years. Then, in 2011 if I remember correctly, another journal of Proenneke’s was published ‘The Early Years’, and that took over my New Year’s Day reading. I’ve read all three of those journals several times, and to say that they’ve greatly influenced me would be an understatement.

In fact, it was that initial phone call to Lake Clarke that led to my relationship with the NPS as a multi-level volunteer for the past 12 years, as well as membership in several park groups. Proenneke’s self reliance, his resilience, his know-how, his minimalist ideals, and his plain old physical toughness are just a few of the traits and aspects that I’ve tried to emulate and put into practice in my own life. But this year on New Year’s Day was something of a milestone, and one that I wasn’t necessarily happy about reaching.

I am now the same age that Proenneke was when he decided to build his own cabin and see if he could take what Alaska had to throw at him, and quite frankly that depressed me a bit thinking about it. I now know that it is very unlikely that I will have the opportunity to go on an adventure in the wilderness, to test myself and see what exactly I am capable of doing. So this year I decided to channel Proenneke in the one way I truly could by getting rid of whatever I don’t need, and that included a bunch of tools.

Every time I read even just a few entries from Proenneke I get disgusted by the sheer amount of stuff I have that I don’t need. But the real issue goes much deeper, because I also have a lot of stuff because I need a lot of stuff. I need certain types of clothing for work, and a car, and a desk full of computer gadgets, and specialized tools, and cell phones, and dozens of other items that are essentially required for modern work and life. There is little I can do about any of it. I can no sooner part with the shoes, Dockers, polo shirts, and work cell phone that I am required to use every day than Proenneke could part with his axe, and that really isn’t a pleasant thought.

The truth is that I don’t have an answer as to how to balance modern existence with my desire to simplify things. Richard Proenneke had to go to the wilderness to do it, but I don’t have that luxury unfortunately. So this past weekend I parted with several toolboxes worth of tools and donated any clothing I didn’t need to charity.


I would like to say with honesty that woodworking brings that missing balance in my life, but it doesn’t, not enough at least. Because woodworking also involves the accumulation of stuff, whether it is the tools and materials we use, the furniture we make, or a combination of those things. There are few serious woodworkers whose garages or workshops aren’t completely filled with a profusion of “stuff”. I don’t want to be that guy anymore, so I started the year off with a purge. Do I feel better for it? Yeah, a little, but I have a strong feeling that it will take something quite drastic before I am actually satisfied. I just don’t know what that drastic step may happen to be…yet.

The Whole One Yard

While doing some clean up in the garage today I noticed something that I found funny. My workbench is 76 inches long. The right half of the bench looks almost brand new though it is around 10 years old, the left half looks like a patchwork quilt. The three feet of the bench on the vise side sees almost all of the woodworking action. I even got out a tape measure and at almost 3 feet exactly, from left to right, the bench goes from ugly duckling to swan. It got me to thinking: could I get away with a workbench half the size? Would it work? Maybe, maybe not.

Every so often I find myself in the mood to build a new workbench. A few years ago I actually started, and completed the construction of the leg assemblies. I was shooting for a variant of the bench that Paul Sellers uses. But, for reasons both clear and obscure, I never actually completed the bench. Part of my reasoning was simple: We’ve been talking about moving to a new house for several years, and I personally think it would be stupid to build a 200lb plus bench just to have to move it (on a side note, maybe if I actually complete a new bench it will lead to a karmic twist and we will find a new house soon afterwards). And, I have to say that my current bench has held up rather well. I haven’t made any real modifications in more than 5 years because none were necessary; the bench does everything I need it to do without much of a hassle.

My current bench is the result of several years of trial and error, and I made additions and subtractions to the design based off of experience. The first real woodworking bench I made had a row of dog holes along the front of the bench top. I found that I rarely used that front row, and the four or five holes I placed strategically along the back half of the bench top saw much more use, mainly when using hold fasts. So when I made the new bench top I did not install a row of dog holes in the traditional position, but roughly in the center of the bench. For many years I worked this way with very few issues, but because I’ve been experimenting with mouldings more and more lately, I finally decided today to drill out a row of dog holes in the more traditional position.

Because I wanted the holes to line up exactly with the holes already on the bench top, I made a simple jig with a drill press consisting of a scrap board with two 3/4 inch holes, one of the holes holding a 3/4 inch dowel for alignment, the other being the guide for the new dog holes; I clamped a speed square next to the jig to keep it perpendicular to the bench front. I started each hole using a forstner bit and a cordless drill. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have attempted to do this with a battery powered drill, but my new drill, a Milwaukee, is no joke, and it had no trouble drilling out the bulk of the waste on each hole. But, because my bench top is more than 3 inches thick, I had to finish off the holes with a brace and bit. The jig did a fine job, and an added benefit of using it was a row of holes that was much straighter than the originals…several of which I discovered were off by several degrees though I had never really paid attention enough to notice.

To finish off the holes with chamfering I used another new toy, a Bosch hand (or palm) router that I purchased last month. I’ve never been a big fan of routers; not that they don’t do a nice job, because generally they are a great tool. But they are also noisy, messy, and can be fairly dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing, which I suppose is the general rule with most power tools. Yet, I’ve been having major issues lately with my hands, my left one in particular. The problems are compounded: Nerve damage, carpal tunnel, scar tissue, damaged tendons, and a lack of feeling in my index finger ever since I nearly cut it off years back. There are days that I literally cannot hold a pencil in that hand. Thankfully, I am a right-hander (though I played sports left-handed…go figure), but we tend not to realize just how often both hands are used while we woodwork. A small router has allowed me to some basic tasks that would normally leave my hand feeling pretty rough otherwise, such as repairs I had to make on a door jamb.

The addition of the new row of dog holes took around an hour including building the jig and cleaning up the mess afterwards. I have a new project in the works, and the new additions to the bench will be put to use. I’m actually hoping to get a few projects going over the course of the next few months. So, I can say for many reasons that I am going into the New Year with hope and optimism. I hope all of you reading this post can say the same. Here’s hoping for a great 2021.

The “jig” set up.
The first 3 feet of the bench. New dog holes easy to see.
The prettier side.

This isn’t a Christmas list…

I have a high opinion of my own intelligence; and I’m sure many others can say the same about themselves. However, I freely admit that there is very, very, very, very much that I don’t know. At that, I also freely admit that there have been times when I have taken the advice of people whom I’ve never met when it came to purchasing a woodworking tool or two. So I decided to showcase (5) woodworking tools that I purchased in the past directly because woodworking gurus advised it in print, and on web sites etc.

Before I continue I want to stress that this is not a gift suggestion list in any way, shape, or form. There was a time when I would post a wish list, but I am now dead set against it and leave it up to magazines to keep that tradition going. I also will refrain from posting any names, magazine titles, or the websites where I came upon these suggestions. People are so weird about that now that it isn’t worth the hassle. And, to add one more little tidbit, I went chose to showcase these particular tools because at the time I purchased them I already had a tool that performed a similar task….With that out of the way, I will get started:

The chosen five…

The first tool on the list is the Stanley 10-049 utility knife. I purchased this tool approximately 4 years ago when an internet woodworker suggested that it was a superior marking knife. Generally, it has been a good tool, and I still use it often. Is it the best marking knife I’ve ever used? No, I have a Veritas that I prefer to use in particular when working on really hard woods, but otherwise this knife has been a very serviceable tool that also functions as a handy pocketknife, something that the Veritas knife does not do.

The second tool on the list is a Record 043 plough (plow) plane. This tool was also recommended by an internet woodworker who touted its usability and its relatively low cost. I can’t say that I am overly impressed with it. The tool is small and not easy to control, in particular if you have large hands. It does work, but I do not use it often anymore. After a year or so of using it I found myself purchasing a Record 044 at nobody’s recommendation except for my own research, and I’ve found it far more versatile and far easier to use.

The third tool on the list is a Gyokucho Razorsaw. I’ve used this saw for just over a year now and I have to admit it does a nice job when it comes to flush cutting. It is flexible and sharp though I wouldn’t use it to cut through a very thick piece of wood, it does a fine job on dowels, wedges, and most small protruding pieces, and the cost is very reasonable.

The fourth tool on this list is a Lie Nielsen No 60 1/2 block plane. I’ve had this tool for around five years and I can’t say enough good things about it. It is easily the best block plane I’ve ever owned, and that is a direct comparison to the vintage Stanley 60 1/2 that I used before I purchased this one. There is not one bad thing I can say about this tool.

The final tool on the list is a Lie Nielsen Tapered Dovetail Saw. I purchased this saw two years ago only because I had planned on giving away my first dovetail saw, a Veritas, which was IMO a very good tool. The LN always received high marks in every magazine tool comparison. When it comes to appearance the comparison is not even worth mentioning. The LN is a beautiful saw. When it comes to performance this is a little trickier to compare. Do I consider the LN to be better than the Veritas? Yes, without any doubt. The LN is slightly heavier, in a good way, and has a far more comfortable handle. But, had I stuck with the Veritas I wouldn’t have any complaints either, and the Veritas is roughly half the cost. Still, I have to say that the LN is a superior saw and I am very happy to have purchased it.

A few years ago I likely had a reputation for disagreeing with the so-called gurus at every turn. I still have my disagreements, but I don’t bother with bringing them to light anymore; it’s just not worth my time. But I will give credit where credit is due, because of the five tools mentioned, only the Record 043 is a tool that I no longer use on a regular basis. The others I would have no problem recommending.

Once again, this is not a Christmas gift list, but if you are considering purchasing a tool as a gift or for yourself, I think you or the gift recipient would be quite satisfied with four of the five shown in the photo. And with that out of the way, I hope everybody has a happy and safe holiday season.

New lap-top.

Approximately three years ago my furniture making career reached an impasse: I haven’t had a need to make full size furniture.

Unless you happen to be Jay Gatsby, chances are your house cannot hold and does not need forty plus full sized pieces of furniture. Well, I am not Jay Gatsby, and my house no longer has room for the furniture I would like to make. So for three years and then some I’ve had to carefully pick and choose what I build and don’t build…yes, I have whined about this before.

My wife once suggested that I make things that I can sell, which would satisfy my urge to build as well as keep our house from becoming overloaded with wooden chotskies. I’ve made several attempts, mainly small boxes, but problems always arose when it came to pricing up these little “gems”. When I added up the cost of materials and labor, well…it just didn’t add up. I really don’t care how “handmade” something is, because regardless of how much time and care and effort was put into the building process, the object being sold is only worth what the market says it is worth. I simply could not justify selling a small dovetailed box with a sliding lid for $150, but that is what it would have had to sell for to make it worth my while.

So just over a year ago I went another route.

A few years back while visiting a national park I purchased a small, slant-lid writing desk..the original lap-top as it were. I forget exactly what it cost, but it was roughly $75 or so with tax. In truth it was a bit more than I wanted to spend, but I am a big supporter of the National Park Service and its partner, Eastern National, so I didn’t mind ponying up the money. The desk was/is made of pine, stained in walnut, and constructed with basic butt joints and dadoes. It was pretty nice, though a little too small to hold some the things I would have liked to keep in it. It held up rather well, and not too long ago I gave it to my dad. But to get back on track, I had an idea to make a “better” version of that box using free pallet wood, and selling them for $75. My prototype turned out fairly well, but prepping the pallet wood took a lot of time and effort, if I remember correctly, just planing, jointing, and gluing up the panels needed took more than 3 hours, far too long to make it worth my while. Considering that the actual construction of the desk would take at least 3 hours, not including applying and touching up finish, I would have had to charge a bare minimum of $140 just to make $20 per hour, and that’s not even including materials like glue, stain, wax, and hinges, or the time spent retrieving usable boards from pallets. The version of a little desk I had purchased at a National Park gift shop for $75 would have needed to be sold for $200 or more just to turn a modest profit. Which is just not feasible in my opinion. So, I gave the prototype to a friend as a birthday gift and shelved the idea.

a rare action photo…trying to clean up the sides of the lid
the desk in its new home


Fast forward to the present, I had been looking for a small project to keep me busy, and replacing the writing desk that I gave to my dad seemed like a decent idea. I also decided to revisit the notion of making these for sale, but this time using pre-prepped boards, my reasoning being that the cost of the boards would offset the time spent culling them and prepping them from pallets. I wanted to use a hardwood for the prototype, so I decided to go with maple. Of course, none of the local home centers had half-inch thick maple boards in stock, but they did have my “favorite” red oak, the hardest and most brittle wood you will likely come across that is sold as dimensional lumber.

To keep from being long-winded I’ll skip all of the unnecessary construction details….we all know how a dovetailed box is made. I began the project last weekend in the hopes that I would finish the bulk of the work on Saturday and complete it on Sunday, but soon my back was bothering me, and when you’re pushing 50 and your back starts talking to you it is a good idea to listen to what it’s trying to say. That being said, the prep time for the home center boards was not much better than the pallet wood. I suppose had I used a table saw it would have gone more quickly, but it still wouldn’t have removed the need for match planing and smooth planing/sanding. I needed to glue up two panels, one for the lid and one for the base. The base was an utter waste of time. When I cut it to final length and temporarily attached it to the box I felt that it looked way too clunky, so I replaced the base with a piece of ¼ inch oak plywood that looks much better. Concerning the lid, I dressed up the endgrain on the sides with oak strips attached with dowels and glue, and I was pleasantly surprised how nicely it turned out, not to mention the simplicity. And speaking of oak strips, if I were to make another one of these boxes the lid would be constructed with ½ inch oak plywood and dressed up with strips, which would eliminate any glue ups and save hours of prep time….I know this because I did it in less than 20 minutes as an experiment after the fact with a piece of scrap ply. 

Regardless, the box turned out pretty nicely, not my best work but hardly my worst, as I am fond of saying. There was only one minor error during the construction. I purposely used hinges with removable pins because I knew that I would be removing and attaching the lid several times as I was working on it, and I did not want to continually remove the screws. I had the idea of the pin “heads” facing each other so they could tapped out from the outside, theoretically keeping a hammer and nailset away from the center of the lid and reducing the likelihood of a ding. The idea worked just fine, but the hinge faces look slightly different from front to back. It’s not noticeable until the lid is open. I actually attempted to just flip the hinge, but in doing so it made that perfect gap that I had strived to attain go slightly askew, so I’ll live with two hinge faces that are a not completely symmetrical. I used a very traditional finish: BLO, which I let dry for 4 hours, and two coats of Minwax premium softwax, a new product (to me) that I was quite impressed with..the application was simple and it left a nice, matte finish.  Overall I am very pleased with how this project turned out. It looks exactly how I expected it to look, and because I made it to my own specifications, it fits exactly where I want it to fit, and it holds all of my geeky reproduction documents, many of which are not traditionally sized.

I’m not sure how to gauge this project. For an experienced woodworker I would definitely consider this more an ‘advanced beginner’ project than anything else, which I understand is an oxymoron. A skilled woodworker would have no issue knocking out several of these in a single day of workshop time. I would guess that a professional would work up a few jigs and easily churn out the dimensional parts in a matter of a few minutes. For somebody at my level I would consider this an intermediate level project. Yet, while I enjoyed this project, I would bet that a lot of amateur woodworkers out there have little to no interest in making an 18th century style writing desk. But, it fits in with the theme of my little home office perfectly, and we are supposed to make for ourselves, aren’t we?

You’re my best friend.

Back in April, I found myself in a situation that I hadn’t been in for more than 30 years: I was not waking up every morning and driving to work.

Like most people in my home state of Pennsylvania, I found myself in a “lockdown” that began in the latter half of March, continued through the entire month of April, and lasted well into the month of May. Though my industry was deemed essential, when construction was shut down across much of the state there was little I could do while sitting in an office, so for nearly 7 weeks I worked from home. I suppose I was lucky that I could work from home, but under the circumstances there was even less I could do there than had I continued to physically be at work. That all being said, the lockdown brought with it, in my case at least, an unprecedented amount of free time.

I did what many people did at first: home improvement projects. I edged all of the flower beds on our lawn, I painted bedrooms, trim, and every interior door in our house, I fixed a crack in the driveway that ran into the garage, I repaired my air compressor (I had been wanting to do that for years) I cleaned out the shed, etc….I could easily go on all day. While all of that time was productive and well spent, I didn’t necessarily find it overly enjoyable; a feeling of satisfaction came more from finishing stuff that needed finishing, and having the time to finally get to all of it, rather than from the work itself.

Yet, while many people reported feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and depression, I found myself feeling just fine for the most part. Sure, there was concern for the health of my family and friends, and concern regarding the future of my job and the company I work for. And like many people, I missed, and still miss, the little things, like having breakfast on Sunday morning at our local café. And I really miss visiting museums and our National Parks, many of which (in our region) are still either shut down or under heavy restrictions. But not once can I say that I felt lonely or depressed, whether my family was with me, or I was alone.

I’ve known that I’ve been an introvert since before I knew the definition of the word. I enjoy being alone, I have a small group of close friends, I think much more than I speak, I communicate better “on paper” than I do verbally, I hate big parties, I generally learn to do things by watching, I enjoy activities (such as woodworking) that require little to no interaction with others, and I think far more clearly when I am alone. If you researched the traits of an introvert I’m sure you would find that most of what I just wrote would be on the list in some way, shape, or form. This isn’t to say that there aren’t exceptions to the rule. I can be on a crowded beach all day, I love the outdoors in general, I love doing volunteer work, and I am happy when I see a lot of people at a place such as a National or State Park. I get along well with my co-workers, and I’ve played in working bands for years and loved the energy of being on stage in front of a big crowd.

Having an introverted personality is not a detriment in the least. And during the current Covid lockdowns, it was something of a blessing, because when everything was shut down, and a lot of people despaired, one of the first thoughts that popped into my head was: ‘I can actually dedicate some time to woodworking again.’

Having a workbench, some tools, and a small but fairly well-organized workspace in my garage, just a few steps away, was all I really needed to get away from the madness of the world. My mind was never more at ease than when making something at the bench, or cleaning up and sharpening tools, or as strange as this may sound, just being in my little “workshop”, moving this and rearranging that. Like Woody and Buzz Lightyear were there for Andy, woodworking was there for me, waiting patiently for my return without any bitterness.

It’s been said that true friends are always there, and though they may not see or speak to each other for months, or even years, once they are together again it is as though nothing has changed, and they can continue an old conversation without skipping a beat. Aside from my immediate family, I can say with certainty that only two people in my life meet this criteria. But if the hobby of woodworking was somehow embodied into flesh, as strange as that visual may be, I would add him/her to the list.

During the past six months, when what we perceived as normal was turned upside down, and when what seemed real became surreal, woodworking has been a constant, there for me when I needed him, like a reassuring tap on the shoulder, a familiar feeling of unconditional acceptance, and a comfort, knowing that my old friend is waiting for me, just a few steps away, ready to continue our conversation, no matter the hour, whenever I feel the need to talk.

Kill my table saw?

I’ve been watching the YouTube channel of Thomas Johnson for several years now. For those of you who may not know who Thomas Johnson happens to be, he is a professional furniture restorer based out of Maine, and he has probably several hundred free videos detailing everything from finishing furniture to carving table legs to match the original. He is extremely talented, and more importantly, I find his show both informative and relaxing to watch.

I also like Johnson’s workshop, not because it is in a rustic barn filled with antique tools, or a modern shop with all of the latest equipment, but because it is a real, working furniture and restoration shop. Johnson has hand tools, power tools, antique tools, and newer stuff. His exhaust system is a box fan framed in plywood. He uses old kitchen cabinets and labeled cardboard boxes to store things. His workbench is a table that has been beat to hell. He uses a band saw when it is the obvious choice, or a table saw, or a hand saw, or all three. There is no pretention at all. Johnson’s stuff is there to do one thing only: earn him a living.

I’ve said many, many, many times before that I don’t have a real workshop, I have a 6ft x 12ft closet sized space at the back of my garage, and floor space is at a premium. During the Covid19 two-weeks to flatten a curve, let’s find a cure, let’s never go outside ever again past few months, I believe I finally came up with the optimal layout for the space I have. I actually posted about it a month or so ago.

But there is one problem: my table saw takes up too much room.

During the past few months I have been woodworking more than I had in years. Most of the projects I’ve undertaken have been small in scale. I’ve found that my table saw has seen very little use during the making of these projects, and when it has, it was for no other real reason than: “why not, it’s there.”

There has been no need to back my wife’s car out of the garage to cross cut on a table saw three boards that are less than a foot long and 3 inches wide each. Or to rip down a board of similar size. All of that I can do, in general, with hand tools. The table saw, at 58 inches wide x 38 inches tall x 32 inches deep, takes up approximately 15 square feet of floor space and roughly 50 cubic feet of total area…that is a huge amount of real estate considering that my allocated work space is less than 100 square feet in total.

So am I turning into one of the “kill your table saw” folks that I used to talk about with thinly veiled contempt a few years back? Maybe, but probably not.

I have said this before and I will say it again: a table saw is the single most important machine in a professional furniture shop, and for use in the carpentry trade it’s not too shabby either. The means to quickly and accurately mill up wood are crucial to a professional tradesman, and it can quite literally be the difference in earning a living or not. Watching Thomas Johnson’s videos has reaffirmed this belief.

But…

I want to get rid of my table saw…..Yeah, you heard me correctly. This is not a philosophical statement; it is a statement of ergonomics. The space that my table saw takes up in the garage can be used for other things both woodworking and non. And unlike in Thomas Johnson’s shop, I don’t need a table saw to earn a living.

This isn’t to say that I am swearing off the table saw completely, but I need to find a space for it, and that space may be in another person’s shop. I unfortunately don’t have one of those magic rooms that Harry Potter uses to store stuff for a later date. I’ve considered moving it to my garden shed, but at well over 200 lbs, moving the beast across a lawn would be no easy task. So for the first time ever I have considered the very real possibility of selling my table saw.

I have had a table saw of some kind for 20 years. I could not have renovated my house without one. I have built more than a dozen pieces of furniture, that are still in use, with a table saw, the very table saw I want to send away, in fact. The tool has been an old friend I will admit. But all of the stuff I am thinking about and planning on building during the upcoming months is relatively small in size. I have no plans to make any large scale furniture for the foreseeable future.  So while I enjoy nostalgia as much as the next guy, I think it may be time to say goodbye, and hopefully not regret it.

Marking Gauge

****I HAD A DIFFICULT TIME UPLOADING PHOTOS-SORRY BUT WORDPRESS WAS NOT COOPERATING****

I can’t say I’ve been a huge proponent of shop made tools. Like many woodworkers who have been at it for a little while, I have made my fair share of woodworking tools, from planes, to bow saws, to spoke shaves. All of those tools work just fine, but of the roughly dozen or so tools I’ve constructed over the years, I can say with all honesty that only the bow saw was truly worth building. I don’t mean to say that I don’t like any of my “homespun” tools or that I didn’t enjoy making them, because I do and I did. But of those tools, only the bow saw performs consistently better than its manufactured equivalent. For instance, the jointer plane I built works nicely, but a Stanley #7 is better. That’s just the way it is with no apologies. But, sometimes I do get one right.

Marking gauges have always bugged me. A decent gauge is expensive, an inexpensive one is useless, and regardless of price I could never seem to find one that I enjoyed using. I messed with the Tite-Mark at a woodworking show or two, and it was okay, but while I am the last person who will argue over spending money on a good tool, I found the price of it absurd.

I own two gauges: one a traditional Marples, the other a knock off Tite-Mark which I have no idea when or where it came into my possession. Unlike the Marples gauge, I didn’t purchase it, so I am assuming that it was given to me. That being said, I don’t like either gauge.

The knock off gauge is uncomfortable and difficult to adjust. The Marples gauge, which also works as a mortise gauge, is okay, but just okay. My biggest issue with it is the marking pin will no longer stay sharp. I’ve filed it many times and it will perform nicely for a few passes and then leave ragged lines. And like the knock off gauge, it is not necessarily easy to adjust. There is no friction between the gauge fence and the dowel that holds the marking pin. It is either loose or tight, and I’ve tried a lot of different methods to introduce friction from shims to cotton balls, but none seemed to work.

A few months back I was watching a woodworking video featuring England’s second most popular woodworker, and he had quite a few shop made gauges set on the tool well of his bench. I decided that if I couldn’t find a gauge I like then maybe I should try to make one. With several projects in between, and with work, home, and everyday life taking up their customary places in my routine, it wasn’t until last weekend that I finally got around to my first attempt at making my own marking gauge.

****I TRIED TO ADD A PHOTO OF THE PROTOTYPE BUT IT WILL NOT UPLOAD****

For the first attempt I used a scrap piece of cherry for the fence, and a 5/8 inch oak dowel to hold the pin. Here is something many people may not know: it is not easy drilling a perfectly perpendicular hole. I used an 18v drill and a Forstner bit to make the hole, and it took three attempts ( and three fence blanks) to get that hole straight enough to work. I was doing everything correctly, including using a square, but the hole was still just a hair off, which is enough to throw everything out of whack. In fact, I was so upset that I actually researched this “phenomenon” and found out something that I already knew: the larger the hole (5/8 inch isn’t large but it’s enough), the more torque needed. The more torque needed, the more opposite torque produced…or something to that effect. Either way, the almost imperceptible wobble of the drill trying to spin in the opposite direction of the bit will throw off your hand, and conversely the hole you are making.

IMG_0913

I took 14 detailed photos of the construction process and this was the only one that WordPress would allow me to upload.

Regardless, I eventually drilled a useable hole, I then drilled and tapped a hole for a lock bolt (3/8 because I had a 3/8 bolt handy). It was ugly but this was just a test. I then shaped the fence block to my hand, and let me say it looked like hell, but it was comfortable. Lastly, I shaped the dowel by planing flat spots on it. These flat spots would allow it to slide, but still leave enough friction to keep the fence tight enough to adjust without sliding away at the slightest tap. I decided to use a cut brad nail as the marking pin and it was a good choice, the nail sharpened nicely with a regular file. I made around two dozen test lines with the gauge and it worked rather well. So with my prototype working I ordered some decent 1/4-20 brass thumb-screws and this afternoon built my first “refined” gauge.

It is my hope to build 4 or 5 of these gauges each pre-set to sizes I use most often. With that in mind, and with my birthday approaching, I decided to go out and purchase a bench top drill press at my local hardware store. I had owned a drill press for years, my father-in-law gave me his Ryobi around 15 years ago, but eventually the chuck sheared off and the repair was not worth the cost. While I enjoyed having the press because it really come in handy, and not just for woodworking, I didn’t purchase a new one because I have limited space in my garage. But because I will need a drill press for an upcoming project, and because I know it will drill consistently straight holes, buying it was an easy decision.

Making the new gauge did not differ much from the prototype, it just went far more quickly. I used the same materials: cherry with an oak dowel. I used the Marples gauge fence as a template to shape the new fence, and I used a handsaw and afterwards a sander on the drill press to add a slight curve. The only difference between the new gauge and the prototype was sawing a recess for the ferule of brass thumb-screw to fit inside.

Once completed I sanded down the fence and dowel to 220, and used BLO and a coat of wax to finish it off. From rough wood to finish applied it took just around an hour.

The gauge works nicely. It is easy to adjust, much more adaptable than a tradition gauge, and it doesn’t look half bad. Most importantly, it makes crisp lines. The best part of this tool is I can easily saw off the marking pin if it is damaged or won’t sharpen correctly and just hammer in a new one. Or I can easily just make extra dowels, either way it is an easily adaptable and repairable tool.

So score one for shop made tools. I can say without a trace of hyperbole that this is the best marking gauge I’ve ever used. I am definitely planning to make more, and I think I may even get a little fancy on one or two of them, but I won’t make any promises.

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