The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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a quick recant

When I published my last blog, somehow a rough draft of it was pubished to wordpress. I just wanted to make that clear so there was no confusion. It’s not much different than the finished blog, I just shortened it up a bit and hopefully made it more succinct. Thanks


A Rant, A Spokeshave, and a Finish.

When I’m Master of the Woodworking Universe…..
There will be no mention made by any woodworking writer or blogist that he or she studied under a crusty old European cabinter-maker. While I’m sure the crusty old guy knew his stuff, and was a good teacher, it really has no bearing on what I’m doing. So showing every home hobbyist your resume and doing some name dropping isn’t really impressing too many people. You may have been taught carpentry by Jesus Christ himself, that doesn’t validate your work to me. Your last project was so-so, and your last book even less so. If you want to impress me, show me some of your teacher’s work. I’ve been an electrician for seven years. Every electrician I know, including myself, was taught in and out of the class room by at least several master electricians. Not once have I or any other electrician I know bragged about it. If I’m being cryptic, read some of my older posts, you will figure out who I am talking about.

After a horrible Friday morning at work, and a long afternoon spent in West Chester PA, I arrived home with a lot of pent-up energy. So I wandered into the garage to do some sharpening, which I find is mind-numbing enough to keep me from thinking about things for a while. After some success sharpening an old Craftsman Chisel I had laying in one of my drawers, I turned to an old spokeshave that a co-worker of my wife had given to her, to give to me, after her husband had passed. I use the Veritas Sharpening System,

Veritas Sharpening System

with which even novice like me can put a nice edge on a plane iron or chisel. But, after about 45 minutes and some cursing I still couldn’t get an acceptable edge on the iron. It probably hadn’t been sharpened in twenty years. The iron was so unevenly cambered that it needs to be ground by machine. I learned a lesson though; after trying to restore another old tool, and failing, again. I’m sticking with new tools from here on out. Woodworking magazines and books for some reason continue to push old tool restoration. I’m not denying it has it’s merits, I just don’t have the time or inclination to do it.
I have to ask: What is so wrong with buying new tools? Weren’t all old tools new at one time? Was it a woodworking sin to buy them then, as it seems to be now? If somebody knows the answers to these questions please drop me a line.

My latest project is winding down and today my wife applied the stain, knowing that I personally don’t have the patience for it. I went with the Bombay Gloss Mahogany from Minwax. This finish is used on two end tables in my house  and also the Stickley magazine cabinet that I made for my living room. The TV stand is in my livingroom,  and I want it to  match the rest of the furniture as closely as possible. The major difference, however, is that this stain has the poly mixed in already.
It has some good points and bad points:
The Good-The stain is a nice match for my existing furniture. The poly is nice and consistent, not dull, and not so shiny as to make it look plastic.
The Bad-The staining process is a little more involved. You have to keep a consistent wet edge, otherwise it gums up and becomes blotchy. It also goes on thickly and you must be careful of runs and drips. Also, the stain seems to cover the grain of the wood and doesn’t enhance it as much as I would like. It leads to a smoother finish, but I like to see all of the different grain patterns. I spent a good deal of time arranging the boards for the top of the stand for that purpose. Now it looks a bit homogenous. My wife likes it that feature, I don’t.

The nature of this project is such that it is easier to finish before it is assembled and glued. Had I used this stain/poly combo on an already assembled piece I think I would like using it more. Still, I will admit that it came out nicely, and doing two steps in one is much quicker. I am going to reserve all final judgement until the piece is assembled and glued and sitting in my living room with the TV on top. So far I have high hopes.

A Quick Woodworking Rant..

When I’m master of the Woodworking Universe….
There will be no more hand tool/power tool discussions. I read a blog entry this weekend that got me started again. A well known woodworking writer/author was asked what the difference was between power and hand tool woodworking. He replied that hand tool use took more skill. I have to completely disagree. You can just as easily butcher a board with power tools as you can with the hand tool variety. They both take skill and practice to wield.
In my humble opinion, for basic cabinet making (carving and turning are completely different animals)  power tools give you a major  advantage in only two areas: ripping a board on a table saw, and cutting dovetails with a jig.
As for ripping a board with a hand saw: I’ve done it, it’s actually fairly easy with straight grained material, and a sharp saw. Where is the skill vs using a table saw? I’m not sure. You will need a strong arm, but when it comes down to it you still need to measure and lay out accurately no matter which method you use. If you need a workout then go for it, other than that I’m missing where you need some special skill to do it.
As far as dovetailing jigs: I don’t use one because firstly I enjoy cutting the dovetails by hand, and secondly because I don’t like how they look. But once set up they do make cutting dovetails much faster, and I guess they have jigs out now that make dovetails look more like a hand cut dovetail. Hey! Whatever floats your boat! Again, you still need to do an accurate lay out.
Every woodworking operation requires accurate measuring and lay out no matter which tools you are using. Cutting a tenon? You have to lay it out accurately, the sawing is the easy part, whether you use a back saw or a table saw. Mortises, rabbets, dadoes, case pieces…all need to be accurately measured and layed out, bottom line. No power tool on earth will help you do that , at least not that I’m aware of. Sure, power tools can possibly help you work more quickly, but not much. There is one big difference between handtools and power tool use, your hand tools need to be sharpened correctly. That is the one skill set that possibly sets handtool and power tool use apart. And may be the most important “skill” a  handtool user posseses. Some power tool users I’ve talked to know little about sharpening. I’ve been using handtools for around two years and I’ve just gotten to the point where I am sharpening on a consistent level, though I believe that a person who woodworks more often would certainly have quicker results. I’m still a weekend warrior. Still, sharp tools make everything easier, but the sharpest tool still won’t lay out the joinery for you.
I use both hand and power tools. I think many woodworkers fall into the same category as I do. If you use one over the other please feel free to keep it to yourself. You all sound like facists.
When I’m Master of the Woodworking Universe…
There will be no talk about freehand sharpening vs using a jig. I use a jig to sharpen my chisels and plane irons. So what? If I hear another pretentious twit talk about how freehand sharpening is better and saves time I’m going to lose it. How is it better? Somebody tell me?? Please!!! And saves time!!!! Where am I going? What is this a race? For the love of God, isn’t it enough to use handtools? Now some joker has to tell us that we aren’t sharpening traditionally enough? Here’s an idea. If you are about to put in print some nonsense about free hand sharpening, take a step back and whack yourself in the hand with a yard stick. If that is your method, then great!! If there is a nuclear war, or a comet strikes, and I can’t find a sharpening jig then I’ll learn how to sharpen free hand.
When I’m Master of the Woodworking Universe
Popular Woodworking Magazine will stop being so preachy. I will preface this by also saying that I do enjoy the magazine, but get over yourself. You would think that everything printed in the magazine is Nobel Prize worthy. Here’s a newsflash: It’s not! And some of the hardcore subsribers are even worse. One blogger called it a “Holy Publication” Are you kidding me? The latest issue kind of sucked, and was about 3 light years away from a religious experience, No offense, but you’re good, not great.
When I’m Master of the Woodworking Universe…
Chuck Bender of the Acanthus Workshop ( will get more recognition. I’ve taken about a half dozen woodworking classes and the two weekend classes I took with him were the best. You pick up a lot of info at one of Chuck’s classes, you simply need to listen. My advice is to pretend you are a Nazi spy among the American Prisoners at a POW camp; if you keep your ears and eyes open you will learn a lot. He also has an internet show called NO B.S. Woodworking that I want to sign up for as soon as I get my head out of where it is. Chuck is just that, NO B.S!  No preaching, no pretention, no process oriented woodworking ( whatever the hell that is! ) Just the best methods from a guy who has done it on the front lines forever. And to top it off it’s fun.

If I offended anybody I don’t regret it..This is a rant after all…

Ladies and Gentleman, Mr. Moxon..

Moxon Style Vice

My current project, an Arts and Crafts TV stand, is winding down and nearing the assembly stage. It’s had some high points, mainly my new router plane making short work of the stopped dadoes in the case and legs. What I had thought was going to be a difficult and time consuming task turned into a quick, easy, and very clean operation.
And the project had some low points: a warped side panel that also developed a minor split. I’ve done what I can to make the warp minimal but it still worries me, and I won’t feel good about it until the case is assembled.
Yesterday my wife and I gave all of the pieces a final sanding. I was hoping that today we would get to the finishing part. I plan on finishing most of this project before it’s assembled. At that point I can measure and prep the stock for the two drawers I am installing. But unfortunately the weather isn’t cooperating as much as I would like so I decided to dedicate a little time to making the Moxon Vice that I will use to dovetail the drawers. The vice hardware I had ordered arrived on Thursday, and I had a few scrap boards laying around that would work so I was ready to go.
This was a super simple project to make and it’s almost not worth noting. But because I think this vice is a very useful tool for any woodworker who does any handwork, I will describe it briefly. I started with part of an old floor joist I had left over from when I built my workbench.  I planed it down to two inches thick with the surface planer, cut it to twenty-nine inches long, and ripped it to just over four inches wide. I then used my jack plane to clean up the saw marks. On each side I  sawed out a 2″ x 2″ section that left two cleats so the vice could be affixed to the bench with holdfasts or clamps. For the face/chop of the vice I used a piece of 3/4″ Poplar that I cut to twenty-four inches long and ripped and planed to the same width as the back of the vice. With the body of the vice finished I turned to boring the holes.
I bored the holes half way up the boards and so that there would be twenty inches between the vice screws. With a 1/2″ spade bit in my drill press I bored the back boards holes first, clamped the front chop to it, and used the holes as a guide to mark the chop. After the holes were all bored I marked the mortises in the back board for each nut from the vice hardware. This was the most difficult part of the build and when I say difficult I don’t really mean it.

Mortises bored out.

With a sharp 3/4″ chisel the whole operation took less than five minutes. Afterwards I glued a piece of suede leather to the inside of the front chop for extra holding power and so the work wouldn’t get marred I gave the vice a light sanding to clean up saw and pencil marks. I may yet attach a another piece to the back board just for added stability. I did a few test clamps and so far so good. In the future I hope to replace the wood with ash. The poplar is fine but it flexes a bit much for my taste. I give the vice it’s first real test when I start on the drawers. I’m hoping that it not only helps my dovetailing but my back as well.

    P.S. After a few trial runs I added another Poplar board to the front chop to double the thickness. The single board flex bothered me enough to make the change. The new chop is 1 1/2″ thick but it holds….like a vice…..for lack of a better word. On my next trip to the lumber yard I plan on picking up enough Ash to re-make the vice. The new 1 1/2″ thick chop works great but it is a little harder to adjust laterally. A hardwood chop no thicker than 1″ will give plenty of holding power and be easily adjustable. I will keep you posted.

Mox Rules, with no apologies to Varsity Blues

I worked for 10 years for a corrugated paper manufacturer as a press operator and maintenance person. The job involved a lot of repetitive, heavy lifting, crawling and stooping, and long shifts standing on an unforgiving concrete floor. Couple that with hernitated disc I got playing flag football(of all things) and it adds up to a fairly messed up back.
My back went “out” again this past weekend. For those of you who don’t know what that means or never experienced it, I will try to describe it: Try to stand straight up with your knees locked and at the same time twist your lower back and hips to the side like one of your knees is bent. You can’t do it, I’ve tried. But when your back is “out” that’s exactly what happens, at least in my case. I’ve been told by brighter minds than mine, in layman’s terms, that this happens because a nerve is being agitated and my back muscles respond by contracting to protect me. I know my muscles mean well but it usually doesn’t work. What I do get out of the deal is 3 or 4 days of limping around, a few bad nights sleep, and some aspirin for good measure. Unfortunately woodworking doesn’t help matters much.
Woodworking sometimes involves many of the things that led to my bad back in the first place: repetitive motions, lifting, stooping, and bending. I spend much of my time at the bench hunched over with my neck craned.
I’m just about 6ft tall with a 33″ tall workbench. The lower bench has many advantages: I’m right over top of the work, I don’t need to shrug my shoulders when planing, and I’m able to use my entire upper body rather than just my arms for many operations. But the lower bench also has a few disadvantages, mainly that when sawing dovetails and other joinery the board is lower and I have to stoop to get a good view of the work. So when I saw the “Moxon” vice in woodworking magazines and on woodworking sites, and  when my back when out yet again, it didn’t take a cheerleader wearing  a whipped cream bikini to convince me to give it a try.
The vice reminds me of a leg vice laying on it’s side. It simply clamps

Moxon Vice

to the workbench top and effectively raises your work up much closer to eye level. This leads to less stooping and more accurate joinery. My current project will have two drawers with exposed dovetails that I hope will be one of the focal points of the piece, they need to be airtight and look good. So I went to the Tools for Working Wood website and ordered just the vice hardware. You can order the vice complete but that adds about $100 to the cost(though I’m sure it’s well worth it) But this vice is so simple, in a good way, that I put aside my disdain for making jigs and such and decided that I would attempt to make the jaws of the vice myself. I figure that for $30 in wood and a suede liner for the chop, and the $60 for the hardware I can make a pretty nice piece of equipment that at worst will help make cutting dovetails and other joinery a bit easier and at best help my ailing back. I think that when the hardware arrives I’ll post some photos and the details of the vice build. I’ll also post a link to the Tools for Working Wood’s Moxon Vice page. More to come….

Haste Makes Waste, and Scrap.

I’ve made a few mistakes during my current TV stand build. After doing a dry fit of the shelves to the side panels I came to the conclusion that the side panels need stretchers. This TV stand is based on a Stickley magazine/book stand. Each side panel on the Stickley has a small stretcher that connects the legs. It is a decorative element that also adds structure. My current design sits much lower to the ground than the magazine stand so there is a much smaller open space between the floor and the case proper. I decided that I would not need the stretchers, I was wrong. So last Thursday, the night before my family and I were spending a long weekend at the beach, I decided to fix it.
My first dilemma was attaching the stretchers. On the original piece the stretchers were mortised and tenoned. I did the mortising before the side panel was glued to the legs. This time the legs and side panels are already glued up, making a mortising operation more difficult. I decided to do the unthinkable and use pocket screws. Because the stretchers are decorative, and because I know that the case sides are square and the joint is hideable, I can cheat and get away with the joint that so many “traditional” woodworkers hate.
My next step was making the stretchers. I planed them down to 5/8″ thick, measured the length and width and cut them on my table saw. Afterwards I used the router table to put a slight roundover on the stretchers and then a block plane to clean it up. Then came my next mistake…
When I brought the stretchers over to the legs they were a full 1/16″ short. I didn’t bother to do a scrap test fit, or even test fit the first cut stretcher. So all of my time was completely wasted. I did the entire operation over again and burned another hour of my night. At first I couldn’t figure out how I messed up so bad. While I am hardly the best woodworker on the planet, one thing I do very well is measure. At my last job I was often required to measure to 1/64″ by hand, which I could do fairly easily with a good ruler. In woodworking I usually don’t go beyond 1/32″, so to be a 1/16″ off was unacceptable. So I chalked it up to one thing: rushing the job.
When it comes down to it woodworking is a time consuming hobby, sometimes filled with drudgery. That’s why I think there are so many gadgets floating around and jig articles being written. A lot of generally well meaning people are trying to eliminate some of the tedious tasks that are part of a woodworking build. I think another reason for the speed obsession is that many woodworking books and articles are written by pros and former pros, who had to come up with ways to work more quickly just to earn a living. And hobbyist woodworkers are also to blame. We all lead busy lives and put such emphasis on “bang for your buck” and quickness that we sometimes forget to enjoy what we are doing.
So when I cut my second set of stretchers I took my time. I carefully measured and test fit, added the roundover, took a few quick swipes with the smoothing plane, and finally lightly sanded what needed to be sanded. In the end the pieces fit so nicely they looked like they grew out of the legs, and I didn’t even attach them yet.
So I guess  you can say I learned a lesson that I already learned. Instead of trying to save time I should have been trying to have a good time. That was the advice I followed on my last few projects and they turned out rather nicely. There will be no more mistakes like this one for the rest of this project. And I’ll have fun, no matter how long it takes…

Clamp It Up, or Clampin’ It, with apologies to Elvis Costello and David Naughton

Before I started my latest project, a TV stand, I realized that I would need to pick up some 48″ cabinet clamps. I built most of the case frame and decided that two well placed clamps would be enough to get the stand clamped up evenly and squarely. After my dry fit I attempted a dry clamp and the slight warp on the right side panel became a pronounced warp, like a barrel trying to be born. So I none too happily came to the conclusion that I would need to purchase another clamp (around $50) to stop the warp and keep the case square. So I cursed the woodworking gods ( Damn you Henry O Studley!) and ordered another clamp.
So with all of my clamping misadventures I got to thinking about how many clamps I had and did a quick inventory. In it I found:

8-24″ F-Style clamps
4-36″ F-Style clamps
4-12″ F-Style clamps
4-24″ quick release clamps
4-12″ quick release clamps
2-36″ quick release clamps
2- vice grip style clamps
2- Kreg clamps
2-Jorgensen traditional wooden jaw clamps
And about a dozen or so each C clamps and spring clamps. Not to mention the 3 new 48″ cabinet clamps I just picked up.
In my estimation this is a decent amount of clamps. And to be fair I had acquired some of these clamps before I had ever dreamed of woodworking, mainly the C clamps, which I had used on my old job, and the smaller quick release clamps, which I had picked up when we were remodeling our kitchen. So it wasn’t as if I had purchased all of these clamps after I took up woodworking, but many of them I did. I would often get them in the same manner that I got my three latest: I needed them for a project so I got them.
I guess that in theory this is the smart way to do it, but in practice it’s not always the best approach. For example, if I already had the third 48″ clamp I could have started my glue up this weekend, without it I will have to wait probably another week. At worst it can be frustrating, but clamps can get expensive so it’s not always easy to just got out and buy a boatload of them when the urge strikes. You’ll often hear on woodworking TV shows “you can never have too many clamps!!” This is usually followed by a wry smile if the host is going it solo, or a few knowing chuckles if it’s part of a group. Woodworking magazines don’t often talk about clamps at all; let’s face it, they’re not exciting. Even as I type this I find my mind wandering to the Olympics, the beach, and to my horror, work. But since we’ve established  the maximum number of clamps that a woodworker should have is somewhere near infinity, as our woodworking bretheren are so quick to point out; I will pose the question: What is the minimum number of clamps a woodworker can own and still get by?
I guess this isn’t an easy one to answer. If it was, some woodworking genius would have put in print and patted himself on the back. In my own amateur estimation I came up with roughly the same number I have in my inventory. So far I’ve made mostly mid sized projects and I’ve found that I use many of my clamps during a build. I would say that to feel secure about your clamping capacity when starting a project you should have minimum:

4-24″ F style
2-36″ F style
2-48″ bar/cabinet clamps
2-4- 24″ quick release
2-4-12″ quick release
And an assorted set of spring clamps.
The spring clamps are easy to justify because they are inexpensive and usually come in sets of 24, which will generally keep you covered in most builds. The F style clamps to me are the most useful. They can adapt to a number of different situations, come in many different sizes, have nice holding power, and are relatively cheap. In fact, on my next stop at a woodworking store I will probably pick up a few more, just because. But in truth you can find a use for just about any clamp when woodworking.
So, before you start you next build, or if you have some money burning a hole in your pocket; check your clamp inventory and see if it doesn’t need some filling. Clamps are maybe the most boring tools in the shop, but you can’t get by with out them

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