The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Tables neverending, and a book review too…


My lower back was acting up this weekend. It hasn’t acted up in a while and during that time I was happy. This past weekend was a different story, and I knew that anything remotely strenous I did would have sent me over the edge into the magical land of back spasms. This left me in somewhat of a sticky situation. My second table was just about finished, and I knew that whatever I did I wanted it ready to be stained on Sunday morning. So I took a chance and decided to finish the work and hope for the best.

I started by making the drawer. It was a simple task and finished quickly, as I had the parts cut already and it only needed to be assembled. I built it in the same fashion as the drawer for the first table, with cut nails and glue. The hard part, as usual, was fitting the kickers for the drawer. I had to plane each down, first with the Jack plane and then the smooth plane, in order to get the fit I wanted. That is easier typed than done. It took around twenty minutes to get it right, which is a lot of planing and fitting and planing and fitting. I can also proudly say that I ended up with two pretty nice and dimensionally even boards. I checked my work with a combination square and found a nice flat surface. I attached them to the table with glue and clamps. I then sawed some cleats to be used for attaching the table top. I drilled the pilot holes and counter sink holes with a hand drill, but once it came to actually attaching them to the table I used glue and my little cordless Dewalt. It was a two-hand operation so the little eggbeater wasn’t an option. While the glue was drying I sanded the outside of the drawer box. I very nearly made a big no-no and planed it with the smooth plane until it dawned on me that the drawer was nailed and not dovetailed. The last thing I wanted to do was introduce my plane iron to a cut nail. Cut nails have no place meeting plane irons; they should just stay in their own neighborhoods where they belong.

So while the glue was drying I also did a little work on the top. I planed the edges with the smooth plane for finish and also took a few very light passes on the top just for good measure, so it came as no surprise when I left a plane track. It was very minor, but rather than try to plane it out I used a random orbit sander to knock it down. Once I had the top finished I removed the clamps and waxed the runners and kickers, and also the drawer sides, as they wont be finished with a stain. The drawer opens slickly with no rocking or sticking, like a banana peel over greased ice. In fact, it was almost too slick, because when I picked it up to bring it into the yard I tilted the table a bit and the drawer nearly flew out and popped me in the face. So with the slick drawer finished I screwed in a stop point on the runners so the reveal would be the same as the sides. The difference between this table and my hall table is that the drawers aren’t supposed to be hidden, so I didn’t make a big effort to have the drawer sit and look just like one of the aprons. There is a gap on each side of the drawers for both tables, roughly 3/16th of an inch. I was shooting for 1/8 but I am satisfied because the drawer fronts took a bit of trimming to get them where I wanted. With all of that finished, I attached the top to the base using pocket screws in the cleats I had added. With that I was done. Both tables are finished now, though only one has a finish on it. I’m frustrated but there is nothing I can do. My shop time for the weekend was limited, and with my back already hurting I didn’t want to push anything. With rainy weather expected here for the next few days I am shooting for Friday to get the finish and poly applied and hopefully call these tables complete.

Mess made from making a kicker.

Mess made from making a kicker.

Table top clamped to the leg vice

Table top clamped to the leg vice

Finished drawer box and runner system

Finished drawer box and runner system

Side view

Side view

2nd table fin'

2nd table fin’

Last night, while resting my back, I decided to do a little woodworking reading. I’m sadly at the age where a book can’t have the profound influence it would if you had read it as a teenager. My days of reading A Catcher in the Rye, or the Great Gatsby, or anything by Hemingway and becoming inspired are gone. Not that I don’t love to read, I still read all the time, but it’s not the magical experience it used to be. I’ve yet to read a woodworking book that has really blown my mind. I’m hoping that book is out there somewhere, but I haven’t found it just yet. Most woodworking books don’t seem to offer a lot of new information. I’ve found that the content of most woodworking books has been repeated either in a different woodworking book or a magazine at some point, or vice versa. I still think they are valuable, but I usually start reading as a skeptic.

The book I was reading last night is The New Traditional Woodworker by Jim Tolpin. I’ve had the book for over a year and I actually did already read it. It may be the only woodworking book that made me angry after I read it. My anger wasn’t directed at the book, or the author, but at the reviewers of the book. Many big names in woodworking called it “An apprenticeship in a book” or “Must have addition to your woodworking library.” After reading the book I had to completely disagree with just about every review. Again, not because it was a bad book, but it wasn’t nearly the book it was made out to be. So last night I decided to give it another try, and came away with nearly the same conclusion I had after first reading it.

The book is billed as an introduction to hand tool work, in particular if you are a woodworker who is transitioning from power tools. Toplin first makes the claim that hand tool woodworking is much less expensive than power tool woodworking. That’s debatable, but okay. My only gripe with that statement is the nice color photo of Tolpin’s hand tool wall in his shop shown in the book, which shows easily $20,000 in tools. I don’t know about you, but if I had $20,000 I could set up a nice power tool shop with money to spare. That being said, I don’t want to make this about power tools vs hand tools. I’m through with that. Those of you who read this blog probably have noticed that I use handtools much more than the powered version. My table saw and possibly random orbit sander are probably the only power tools that see a significant amount of use in my shop. You’ve also probably noticed that every tool I’ve purchased over the past 10 months has been a hand tool. I say all of this just to point out that I’m not biased one way or the other. I am just trying to back up my statement, the same way Tolpin probably should have done when he made his tool cost claims.

I had one major problem with this book. The book has some very nice photos of Tolpin’s shop. In it Tolpin has a high-set joinery bench, and lower set planing/traditional bench, and an even lower assembly bench. If you’ve read my blog before you will know that I am a big advocate of such a set up, especially the assembly bench, which is something I would love to have considering my back situation. The benches all look great and seem to be well constructred. So what is the problem? There isn’t a plan for one of them in the book! Tolpin gives some rough dimensions for the benches but that’s about it. For a book billing itself as an introduction to hand tool woodworking and setting up a hand tool shop it needs those plans. Maybe the author assumes that the reader already possesses basic knowledge of bench design if he/she is reading a hand tool book. If that is the case I think it’s a big assumption to make.

The only other real gripe I have with the book is the section on tools. There are nice color photos of a large assortment of woodworking handtools, from saws to chisels, to planes. Each section has a description of each tool and what it’s used for. That is fine but there are precious few photos of the tools in action. I would have liked to see more photos of the joinery associated with each tool. You can get nice color photos and explanations of what a tool does in any decent tool catalog for free. Another area where the book falls a little short is in the sharpening section. There are six pages dedicated to sharpening, about half photos and half text. The explanations of the sharpening techniques shown just aren’t concise enough. I have a book dedicated solely to sharpening; maybe a lot of woodworkers do. Again, perhaps the author assumes that as a person interested in hand tools will automatically have some type of sharpening system in mind. Another big assumption to make if that is true. Sharpening may be the most important skill a hand tool user needs to obtain, but it is glossed over a little too quickly for my taste.

Though I have some complaints with the book it also has some good points. The projects section is excellent. There are several shop projects designed to be made by hand including a face planing stop, a nice pair of bench hooks, and an edge planing stop. These would all be very useful shop additions as well as projects that most beginners could complete fairly painlessly. Another nice shop project is the pair of sawbenches that Toplin uses. They are well designed to be used in conjuction for ripping, the first set of it’s kind that I’ve seen. Also included, among other projects, is a saw sharpening vice and a small tool tote. I think of everything in the book the projects section is the most thought out and worthwhile.

Overall I can’t call this book a must read, but I wouldn’t call it worthless either. In my opinion, the descriptions of the tools are for the absolute beginner, and yet the book assumes that a beginning woodworker has no need for workbench plans of any kind, especially when the benches shown all seem to be excellent. That and the lack of action photos knock one star and a half off of this book. Still, the projects section makes up for some of the lacking chapters. My advice for a new woodworker reading this book would be to pick up the Lee Valley woodworking catalog and read through that, and then go on to the projects in The New Traditional Woodworker. Of everything, they make this book worth owning.



  1. Jeff Branch says:

    “I’ve yet to read a woodworking book that has really blown my mind.”

    I know, right? I have read some woodworkers make the same kind of comment – a particular book changed their life and such. Which is good when it does, but I have not found that book – a near exception would be Thos. Moser’s “How to Build Shaker Furniture.” But that was decades ago.

    Nice table, I know that fitting drawers is a lot of work. I have not yet tired of using my smoothing plane. It makes me feel like a grown up woodworker. 🙂

    • billlattpa says:

      I haven’t read the Moser book except for a few excerpts from it, but I know that it’s held in high regard. The tables have turned out pretty nicely and how I imagined them, but it’s taken a lot longer than I thought. It’s not that I’m in a rush, I just hate having a project on the verge of being finished sitting in my garage. Thanks.

  2. Jonas Jensen says:

    I think the table looks good.

    Finding a great book is a difficult thing. Probably because all sorts of information is readily available from a lot of different places.
    I like project style books, like the Shaker furniture book written by Kerry Pierce. He demonstrates each build very thoroughly, and actually even says if it take s a long time to build it. No “done in a long afternoon in the shop”.

    But thanks for the review, now I know that I don’t need to get that book. I actually got some money from my in laws for my birthday that are ear marked for woodworking literature. I Have another carpenters book in sight, so maybe I too will make a review one day.

  3. billlattpa says:

    It seems that nearly every woodworking book I’ve ever read presents info that I’ve already seen in about ten different sources. I agree with you that project books are generally the way to go. All of my favorite woodworking books that I own are project oriented. I like to read and study about techniques, not what a chisel is used for. Usually in a project book the joinery methods are what are highlighted, and that is all I really want to know when it comes down to it. Even if you aren’t planning on making the project you can always learn from the way it was designed, put together, joined, etc.. And when it comes down to it the only section in The New Traditional Woodworker that seemed worthwhile to me was the project section. In fact, I like the edge jointing stop that he uses and I plan on building one for myself.

    I also really enjoy carpentry books and I have several good ones, including an old set of Audel’s that a friend gave to me. They are probably the best that I have. Carpentry was probably my first introduction to woodworking and a trade that I nearly took up years ago. Part of me still wishes that I had.

  4. Art Watson says:

    The tables look great Bill and it won’t be much longer before you can move on to the bench project. I know you are looking forward to that.

    Great review on the Tolpin book. Every beginner needs an introduction to the purpose and use of the many mysterious tools used in woodworking but as you correctly point out, you only need one such book. After you know what a tool is for, the next step is to know how it is used, then how it can be used, then tips for mastery of its use! That can’t be done by a survey and a couple of paragraphs.

    • billlattpa says:

      Thank you! I can’t say the Tolpin book was bad, as an introduction to hand tools for a complete beginner it works to an extent. But even at that it still falls short in several areas. I could have lived with that if so many people hadn’t hailed this book as the next great thing in using hand tools.

      I’m hoping to get my benchtop boards planed next week. I’m not banking on it yet. But you’re right, I am anxious to get started. I just hope that the boards I have set aside will work.

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