As a general rule, I think most woodworkers prefer to build things rather than buy them. Afterall, isn’t that the reason we all woodwork in the first place? Maybe. The truth is that sometimes I don’t really know for sure exactly why I woodwork. I don’t like to analyze it too much. I’ve seen articles written by respected woodworkers trying to explain the fundamental need to build that humans have and how woodworking fulfills those needs on many levels. Let’s go with that definition, because when it comes down to it I don’t feel the need to really offer an explanation. I woodwork because it’s fun and I enjoy it. Sometimes I woodwork because I need to make a piece of furniture that I cannot purchase. Yeah, that’s right, I have no objection to purchasing furniture.
Before I continue on I would admit that aside from my sofa, it’s been a long time since I went to a store and actually bought furniture. I’ve made nearly all of the furniture in our livingroom, and some of our dining room furniture. Our bedroom furniture was handed down to us, and our daughter’s we purchased before she was born. So now that I think about it, my daughter’s furniture may have been my last furniture purchase, more than six years ago. With that being said, even though I like to call myself a woodworker I see no problem with purchasing furniture, even production furniture for that matter. There are some in the woodworking “community” that like to consider production made furniture some form of woodworking sacrilege. Production furniture is junk they say. Well, sure, some production furniture is no more than junk, and….some furniture made by hobbyists in their home shops with their own hands is little more than junk, too. Now, before somebody jumps all over me for making that statement I would like to point out that I’m not in the business of criticizing the work of hobbyist woodworkers. I’m a hobbyist myself and I know that my furniture isn’t perfect; in fact, that is something I want to talk a little more about later. I do want to add that if you are a hobbyist or even a professional who feels the need to run down production furniture then your stuff better be pretty damn good. There are two companies right here in southeast Pennsylvania that make excellent production furniture that I would be proud to own. These companies employ people who take pride in their work. I know that because I know people who work for them. Without production furniture, I think it’s safe to say that most homes would have little furniture in them. The bottom line is that most people don’t have the money, time, tools, or skills to furnish their entire homes, or even half of their homes with furniture they made themselves. There is nothing wrong with that, and it shouldn’t be the point of shame that some woodworkers make it out to be. I’m not going to get into a whole history lesson again with this post; I’ll just say that production furniture companies made it possible for poor immigrants like my ancestors to have decent furniture in their homes, and in some cases gave them employment. They sure as hell couldn’t afford the stuff being sold at some of the “artisan” shops that we all admire so much. So production furniture is alright with me.
So now, after that high and mighty speech I just wrote, I’m going to contradict myself somewhat. How? As much as I admire some production made furniture, and as well as some of it is made, I don’t want my furniture to look like I purchased it. A few people have asked me where I purchased certain pieces of furniture I made. I took that as a compliment, and at the same time I want my stuff to look like something you can’t just walk into a store and buy. I’m not striving for furniture that looks like it was production made; I’m striving for stuff that looks like no one could have made it but me. That is why I sometimes don’t mind the dings, or the knots, or the gouges that you find on a board. Those minor defects often times wouldn’t make the cut at a production facility, or they would be machined out. While I usually don’t attempt to highlight a mistake, I also make no attempts to hide them if they give the piece character. That is something I think furniture has lost, both production made and shop made. Look at much of the furniture you see in woodworking magazines. Whether made with power tools, hand tools, or both, it all looks just a little too perfect. Maybe perfect isn’t the right word, how about unnatural? We read all about the natural beauty of trees, yet watch our woodworking heroes turn the wood into perfectly dimensioned boards, either by machine or hand, with shavings and fits that need to be measured with a micrometer. At the same time, I’m not talking about nailing four legs to a split log, slapping on some shellac, and calling it a table. I have to think there is a happy medium somewhere.
So, in the end, my goal is finding that happy medium. When it comes down to it I want the best of both worlds: furniture as well made and designed as the production variety, yet unique as no production furniture can be. Still, I’ve learned as much from studying production designs as I have anywhere else. If anything I admire the ingenuity of it. We tend to forget, but it takes some brains and talent to design a piece of furniture that looks good, is affordable, sturdy, and can be reproduced. The geek that I am, I’ve studied the chest of drawers in our bedroom many times and I am still amazed at how well made it is, and it is nothing more than a production piece… and a study in joinery, design, and function. A woodworker who could build that chest of drawers could make just about anything. I would bet that most of us has a piece of furniture in his house that meets that description. I’ve learned much from production furniture, and like some, I’m not afraid to admit it. Before you knock it, ask yourself if you could have made it yourself, and as well. Though I haven’t purchased a piece of furniture in a while, that doesn’t mean I never will again. For now, I simply purchase my furniture at a lumber yard, I just put it together myself.
I’ve finally got my car situation settled, the weather is unseasonably cool, and it’s about time to start woodworking again….
For the past few weeks I’ve been in somewhat of a woodworking slump. It’s not that I don’t have anything to build, or the tools to build it with; but there has been a series of unfortunate circumstances that have kept me away from the bench and doing other non-woodworking (i.e. less fun) tasks. Firstly, I had to get my car situation settled. So, this past Monday, I picked up my new car and became the proud owner of another car payment. All in all that process took a few weeks, but now that it’s over I have one thing weighing less heavily on my mind. Secondly, there are projects around the house that I need to complete, new windows for the attic and repairing the door on my shed come to mind.. Couple that with a busy few weeks at work, and the addtional jobs that the changing of the seasons bring (lawn work, weeding, pruning etc…) and it has added up to much less time woodworking. Normally, when I am in between projects, I would spend some of my free time sharpening tools, and organizing my little workshop space. I haven’t even had time to do that. Fortunately, my garage is in pretty good shape, but as always the tools could use a little sharpening. So it’s time to get the ball rolling again.
First thing I need to do is re-apply the finish to the second end table. I bravely (I’m calling it brave) sanded off the finish from the top because I didn’t like how it turned out. Hopefully that will be done today. Second thing I need to do is get my Got-Damn (in honor of my PA Dutch friends) workbench top built. On and off for the past month I’ve been sorting the stock, and sawing this and planing that in preparing the boards, and I managed to make almost no progress. I really need to get on the ball here. That is going to mean dedicating a whole, uninterrupted day in building that top. I’m going to need some cooperation from my wife at that point, and it just won’t work without her help. Third thing I need to do is finally sign up for the Hand Tool School virtual woodworking program. That, thankfully, is the easy part.
So, just like Sisyphus, I’m going to keep on trying to get over the hump. I am unfortunately one of those people who is driven to complete a project once I make up my mind to do it. Whether or not that is a good trait I’m not so sure, but whatever it may be I hope it helps me finally get my benchtop finished. I know that the top is going to be an important step in improving my woodworking, therefore I need to finish it before I do anything else. The sad thing is that once it gets going it should be fairly simple and straightforward, at least I think it will be. So the next week should be the roughest, but I know that if I get through it I’ll be back on track. I just have to be strong willed and diligent. These are the times that try woodworkers souls.
What was your first woodworking tool? I’m not talking carpentry, such as a hammer or a hand saw; I’m talking the first tool purchased with woodworking in mind. The first tool I can remember owning was a Swiss Army Knife. I received it for a birthday present when I turned thirteen. I had it for a few years and it disappeared. The first real set of tools I ever owned were from my former job. When I became a press operator I received a ratchet and socket set, some screw drivers, a set of metric and standard T wrenches, two pairs of pump pliers, a few crescent wrenches, and a tape measure. I supplemented that set with a set of Craftsman open ended wrenches, a mapp gas torch, a hacksaw, a rubber mallet, a torpedo level, an air ratchet, and a torque wrench. Of course, within a month or so just about every tool in the kit had magically disappeared. At the age of 23 I was still naive enough to believe that people have integrity when it comes to “borrowing” tools. So I wisened up and purchased a large tool box with a locking top and a bar that locked the drawers in place. The box also had a hasp in the back so I could phsyically chain it to the ground, or a bench or beam. I filled it will all of my own tools and left the “company” tools in the box they had provided. It didn’t take long for many of my co-workers to realize that I had a nice, complete tool set again. This time, however, I was armed with a tool box that had bank vault like security. When someone asked to borrow a tool I would point them to the company box, which had become a pitiful collection of mismatched tools and missing sockets. Techincally, since the company owned the tools, I had to loan them out at need, but that rule didn’t apply to personal property. They would predictably bitch and moan and finally one night my supervisor told me that I had to loan out the tools. I told him that I had no problem lending out any tool that the company had provided, but my personal set, just like my car, my wallet, and even the lunch I had brought, was for my use only. I hated to be childish about it all but I knew that was the only way I could keep my tools from being stolen. That was somwhere around 1996, and though my policies were somewhat draconian, to this day I still have most of those tools, even though that company closed eight years ago.
My next big tool purchase was right around the same time my company closed. I knew I would be doing electrical work full time so I decided to upgrade my set, which at that point was already decently equipped because I had been doing maintenance work at my soon to be former job. The school I was attending for my certifications offered discounts to students, so I purchased a high quality set of hand tools. I won’t list them, there are too many. Fortunately none were ever stolen. In fact, the only issue I ever had was when I had lent my pair of dykes to a guy who promptly cut into a live wire with them. While I was a little upset, I didn’t take it out on him. In fact, I told him to keep them and I purchased a new set, which I still have to this day.
Outside of work, the first power tool I ever purchased was a Black and Decker belt sander, which I used to sand down a small portion of the floor of my house when we first moved in. After that it snowballed quickly: a miter saw, a benchtop table saw, a tile saw, a compressor. I had already owned a sawzall, cordless drills, a hammer drill, and a rotozip, but they were for electrical work and not necessarily purchased for the house. Eventually I puchased a router. We remodeled our kitchen and wanted the trim to be in maple. So rather than try to purchase maple trim, which is extremely costly, we made it ourselves with the router. While maybe that was my first woodworking tool, I didn’t really purchase it for woodworking.
So here I am, I’ve been woodworking for somewhere around 4 years. For the life of me I couldn’t tell you my first ever woodworking tool purchase. I can remember ordering a few tools from Traditional Woodworker. A co worker of my wife whose husband unfortunately had passed away gave to me some of his woodworking tools. I had a decent backsaw and smooth plane, and a few chisels, but they were given to me. But what was the first purchase? If I had to guess I would say my mallet, a Marples marking gauge, and a 3/8 chisel. I could be wrong, but those are the only things that come to mind. Why should all of this bother me? It’s because I can remember nearly every tool I’ve ever owned for going on twenty years, but when it comes to woodworking I draw a complete blank. Maybe because in woodworking we often purchase our tools piecemeal. My other tools, the tools I used on the job, I had purchased mostly together, adding and supplementing as I went. I don’t know the answer but it’s been bothering me. I had considered taking that very first tool and saving it, perhaps even passing it along to my daughter, or son if I have one someday. It would be somewhat of a symbolic gesture because I am the only woodworker I know of in my immediate family. I was thinking that the tool could be a family heirloom, maybe. It could even be the future symbol/relic of a great family of would-be woodworkers. It could be all of that and more, but I’ll be damned if I can tell you what it is.
I am a bit more at ease today, having purchased my second new car in a three month period. While that sounds like it should be a bit nerve-wracking, I’m finding myself a bit more relaxed. Nobody likes making car payments, but my mind is at ease knowing that both my wife and I have two new and reliable cars, and that no sudden expenses will be exposing their ugly selves to us, and I also don’t mind saying that both vehicles are much more fuel efficient than our last cars. So with our vehicle problem out of the way for hopefully at least five years, this should free me up for at least a few woodworking projects over the summer, shouldn’t it?
This coming weekend being a holiday weekend, I had planned on getting a few things done in the woodworking sense. However, my father-in-law is installing a new kitchen and I had promised him that I would re-wire it on Saturday. Imagine my joy and surprise when I found out that it was knob and tube?? With that fun-filled day already taken, I thought that Sunday might be the day, until I realized that I would probably be spending much of the day at my mom’s house, as we usually do every year for Memorial Day weekend. Monday, the day itself, I am hoping to get a little more of the material prepped for my bench top build. I would also like to honor the members of the armed forces, both past and present, by letting the Stars and Stripes fly once again, and perhaps teach my daughter the lyrics to God Bless America and maybe perhaps the most important phrase ever written in regards to freedom-We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Though she is much too young to really understand the words, it really doesn’t matter all that much. There is a power in them that goes beyond mere reading comprehension. Just as I, as a little boy, was moved upon hearing the Declaration of Independence read aloud for the first time, though I barely understood what it meant, I think she will be proud to have said the words nonetheless.
So not this coming weekend, but the following weekend, I think will be my true return to the bench. In the meanwhile, I have chisels and plane irons to sharpen, and some sawing practice to do. I purchased my first Japanese style saw last week, one made by Marples. The handle is plastic and not so fun to grip, but the blade seems decent. Here’s what I’ve found out by messing with it for an hour or so…Firstly, the saw is no more accurate than a western style saw. In fact, it isn’t as accurate in my opinion. Maybe I feel this way because I’ve been using western style saws for so long, or simply because the Marples saw isn’t a very good one. At the same time, I’ve heard it said many, many, many times that Japanese style saws are much better for a beginner because they are much more accurate. Supposedly pulling the saw through the work stiffens the blade in the cut, making binding and kinking much less likely. That is completely false in my opinion. While this is the first Japanese style saw I’ve owned, I have used them before, and they bind and kink the same way as a western saw does. Secondly, I’ve come to the conclusion that Japanese saws depend much more on the sharpness of the blade rather than the accuracy of the sawyer. Sure, you should always use a sharp saw, that is a given, but extending your arms into the cut, i.e. cutting on the push stroke, is a more natural, and stronger way to saw. Japanese saws get most of their accuracy from the fact that the teeth are extremely sharp, effectively cutting the wood more easily. Again that is just my opinion. Somebody will argue with me and here is my rebuttal. Take most acts of strength and motion and tell me which way they go…Yeah, it’s forward. Bench press, throwing motion, running, walking, swinging a tennis racket or baseball bat. Why, all of a sudden, when my entire life my body and muscles have been trained to move and work forward, would I want to start sawing and planing backwards. You can say that sawing and planing on the pull stroke simply takes some getting used to and I will answer with the same sentence I just used. Why? I can saw and plane just fine on the push stroke. I cannot and will not deny the beauty and skill of Japanese woodworking and craftsman, I’m only saying that for the moment I’m happy doing what I’m doing. I will admit this, the rip side of the Japanese saw does a pretty decent job and made the saw worth the purchase, though I would still use my western style backsaw for joinery, such as tenons and dovetails.
After all of that it has just occurred to me that I really need to start woodworking again soon. God only knows what odd tool I’m going to find myself with next. I’m not one to wish the days away, but I’m counting down the days until I can woodwork without interruption for a few hours. I miss it. I miss the feeling of just starting a project and the optimism that comes with it. We all know that by the time the project is finished there will be some pleading, and cursing, and compromises involved. Still, that is what makes woodworking so much fun; every new project is a renewal of hope. So, I will try to be patient, and live every day to it’s fullest until the time comes when I can woodwork again, when I can take a few boards, and an idea in my head, and dream about what can be.
For the past 5+ years the area of Pennsylvania I live in has been dominated by Charles “Chuck” Bender and the Acanthus workshop. Chuck’s shop/woodworking school is just a few miles from my house. Chuck, who in some circles is known as ‘The Woodfather’, has been the de facto boss in the territory by offering affordable woodworking classes that are fun and informative. So, when I came onto the scene a few years ago I deferred to Chuck’s experience and wisdom out of respect. I bided my time, waiting for the day to make my move and stake my claim as Chester County Pennsylvania’s most feared and respected woodworker and blog writer. Just yesterday, it was announced that Chuck will become a full time writer for Popular Woodworking magazine and make the move to Cincinnati, Ohio. Whether or not Chuck took the job because he knew that sooner or later I would make my move to control the area’s woodworking district I will probably never know. But now that Chuck and his henchmen will soon be gone, I already have plans to assume full control. I won’t get into details as of yet, but it involves a woodworking supply, woodworking classes, and maybe most importantly: anger management sessions.
In any event, I’m happy to see Chuck writing for Popular Woodworking. Chuck is a top notch woodworker and teacher, and he’s always written excellent articles for PW whenever he’s had the chance. I’ve only taken a handfull of woodworking classes in my life, and the classes I’ve taken at the Acanthus Workshop were my favorite. Chuck taught me how to hold a saw correctly, how to set a plane iron and chip breaker, and how to lay out and saw dovetails. I learned how to glue up table-tops with Chuck’s instruction. Gluing up a couple of boards to make a table top may sound like a no brainer, but there’s a bit more to it than meets the eye if you want it done correctly. I learned that an F-style clamp gets much of its clamping power in the first couple of turns. Again, that may seem like simple physics, but I never really thought about it until I took a class with Chuck Bender. So I can say that much of the real world woodworking knowledge I have is because of him.
So now that Chuck will soon be out of the area, it’s time for me to step up my game. The area needs a new Capo, and that job has my name written all over it. I cannot promise to be as friendly as Chuck; I rule my territory with an iron fist. The coup should be quick and mostly painless. Soon, the entire area will know who I am, for good or ill. So I would like to wish good luck to Charles ‘The Woodfather’ Bender, and I would also like to announce that there’s gonna be a new Sherrif in town. His name is Bill, but he prefers that you call him ‘Sir’.
We’ve all done some things in our lives that, depending on the point of view, can either be considered brave, or foolish. I can name three off the top of my head: rappelling down a 75ft wall with absolutely no training (and I’m afraid of heights), enlisting in the armed forces, and getting perhaps the most unique tattoo on planet Earth. Still, whatever I may have done in my life, be it brave or foolish, in an attempt at maturity I try to have no regrets. Our brave, or foolish, acts define us and make us what we are, right or wrong. I firmly believe that every moment in our lives is interconnected in ways that aren’t always possible to understand. Maybe if I never got my unique tattoo I wouldn’t have my little girl right now. Maybe that moment of foolishness, or bravery, is the reason that she is here. I don’t know the answer, but it somehow seems right to me. So I have no regrets and hopefully never will. With that lovely little preamble out of the way I think I can tell you that tonight I committed my bravest, or most foolish, woodworking act to date.
I’ll set the scene…..After I returned home today I decided to do a little work on the back yard, just some basic cleaning and maintenance. It was an absolutely beautiful early evening so I pulled up a chair, sat back, and admired my lawn. Yeah, I admire my lawn sometimes; I admit it. Just like woodworking, I put a lot of my hard earned time, money, and sweat into it. I’m proud of my lawn. With the grass as green as the first spring in Eden, and a cool breeze in the air, for a moment I was perfectly content with life. Hell, I nearly cracked open a beer, which is something I rarely do anymore. Just at that moment of almost perfect harmony I decided to move the second end table out of the garage and into the living room. The first end table, which is already in my living room, turned out quite nicely. In fact, while it may not have been my favorite build, it may be my favorite piece of furniture. I never made anything that looks so nice proportionally, both in itself and where it is in my house. The second table, however, didn’t meet my expectations. The table top, for whatever reason, didn’t finish as nicely as I thought it should have, especially considering the nice grain pattern it has. There was one spot in particular that looked like an animal foot print, for lack of a better word. When I pointed it out to my wife she made the prudent suggestion that I should just put a lamp over the spot and not worry about it. That was probably good advice, but looking at the table I knew that I would never be able to live with it, so I did the unthinkable and sanded the finish off.
For the record, the table didn’t look all that bad. If I had built it on it’s own I probably wouldn’t have thought much of the minor blemishes. But here is the but.. Since the first table turned out so nicely, and it will be just across the sofa from its mate, I couldn’t see any other choice but to attempt a refinish. I truly consider it a brave act. Why live with a mistake that you can fix? Yet, it may also have been a foolish act as well. I’ve never done anything like this before. For all I know, the table may turn out worse. I have no idea what will happen when I try to apply stain to the newly stripped top. It may just look hideous. Just for good measure, I removed the drawer front too and sanded the finish off of it. Whatever the case, I think I did the right thing. The reason I know that is because I’m happy I did it. I know myself, and I know that having that table next to my sofa not living up to my expectations would have eventually gotten to me.
I put a lot of work into building those tables, and I’m not about to let a little bit of mismatched stain ruin them. So I did it; I took a chance. Maybe it was a foolish chance but I don’t care. Every now and then you have to take a few risks. Sometimes you have to say ‘What the —-‘. I know, I stole that line from Risky Business, but that doesn’t make it any less appropriate. Where would I be if I didn’t take any chances? Where would any of us be? Taking chances got me where I am today, and wherever that is it’s a hell of a lot better than where I started. Just as the other day I was feeling down, today I’m not, and I am looking forward to woodworking once more. Maybe a foolish act got me out of the duldrums and made me happy again. I won’t analyze it. Even if I am a fool, at least I am a brave fool.
Having finally finished my end tables project, I finally settled on a design for my new workbench top. I’m hoping for a top seven feet long by two feet wide by 3 1/4″ thick. I had talked about adding a tool tray, but rather than put one in the back of the bench I think I’m going to attempt to place it in the center of the bench top. I’m thinking it will be divided into three compartments: one at each end roughly 18″ long by 5 1/2″ wide and as deep as the bench. Each of those trays will end at the side stretchers for each top. I will also make those side stretchers sturdier by gluing an additional board to the inside of each to effectively double their thickness, which will add greater support and more weight to the bench. The center tray I may make deeper, but in any event it will have removeable trays to assist with cleaning and with clamping. I already have most of the material needed to complete this project; it just needs a little prep work. So with my bench top design ready to go and my end tables finished you would think that I would be pretty excited, but the truth is I’m not.
I think for the first time since I’ve been woodworking I’m regarding the hobby as an expense. I’m coming up on a situation where very soon I will probably be making two car payments. When you add that up with all of the other expenses of life certain things begin falling to the wayside. Woodworking may be in danger of becoming one of those things, unfortunately. I have no illusions to the costs of woodworking as a hobby; some woodworking writers do. In fact, the bullshit costs that many woodworking writers assigned to the hobby are one of the reasons I started this blog. Their used car salesman approach to selling books and tools and the creative accounting they used when coming up with those woodworking costs for selling their magazine articles and “setting up shop” books was downright insulting in many cases. I’m sure somebody will read this and go back to Chris Schwarz or Megan Fitzpatrick or Jim Tolpin and say “The Slightly Confused Woodworker is insulting woodworking writers again!!” Go ahead, I don’t give a fuck. Here’s a not so interesting little fact: Do you want to know why I’m ‘The Slightly Confused Woodworker’? It isn’t because I don’t know what I’m doing..I do..And it’s not because I’m just not all that smart..I am..It’s because when I first started checking out woodworking forums and sites I saw about a hundred questions that started off something like: “I’m a little confused, so and so said that I should do this, but then I read so and so and he said that I should definitely do this.” or ” I’m slightly confused. So and so said I should only pay this much for such and such, but I can’t seem to find it for less than such and such.” I’m not making this up; I’ve seen hundreds of statements just like those.
Now, we are all big boys and girls here. Nobody twisted our arms and forced us to spend our hard earned money woodworking. We all woodwork because we enjoy it. I simply don’t care for pandering all that much, and it seems to me that there is a lot of that going around in the world of woodworking magazines and the ten thousand “getting started in woodworking” books that are in print. When it comes down to it, very few of those titles paint a true picture of the costs associated with woodworking. For the record, I’m not blaming anybody for my current situation. I’m not stupid enough to pick up a book and believe everything it says; some people may be, but I’m not. I don’t offer advice all that much, but one bit of wisdom I would be willing to pass on to any newbie woodworker is: Think of the money you plan to spend on getting into the hobby, come up with a number that sounds reasonable, and then plan on at least doubling it, and that will get you in the front door. If one person reads that and it helps him or her, I will consider it mission accomplished.
After all is said and done, I have to get my priorities in order, and see where woodworking falls on that list. I know where it is going to end up, and I’m not too happy about it at the moment. I had quite a few things planned when it came to woodworking, and I would hate to see those plans go unfulfilled. Things will work out somehow, they usually do for me. Until then, I will continue on with my workbench top build, and the Hand Tool School, and most of all be patient. There is little I cannot do or accomplish when I put my mind to it. If I’m as smart as I like to think I am, this time I’m gonna have to prove it.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.