The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Woodworking in the Norm.

When I picked up the material for our bedroom remodel I had a pretty good idea of what I would need to get the job finished. I had estimated roughly 165 linear feet of trim and casing material, and the wainscoting would be roughly 50 linear feet, or approximately 75 pieces. Sunday afternoon, after I had called it a day to have dinner and watch the Eagles get killed, I had discovered that my estimate was very close to the mark. I will likely end up with one extra piece of the cap rail, and the wainscoting will likely fall 4 pieces short of the mark. At that, when all is said and done, I will have trimmed to length (along with a few to width) nearly 80 pieces of wainscoting as well as have made at the least 35 cuts of trim, baseboard, and casing material. Needless to say, though I will say it anyway, those cuts need to be precise if they are to look good. I can’t speak for anybody else, but that is a lot of work for one guy who is doing the job in his spare time during the weekend. Because I am doing the bulk of the cutting in my back yard, I spent much of the day yesterday cutting as many of the pieces as I could and then running through the garage and up the stairs to get them installed; it was a workout. All I can say is: Thank God for power tools.

For this job, I’ve been using a sliding compound miter saw and a jigsaw as the main power tools. The only hand tools that have really come into play are a block plane to trim the corners, a chisel, a hammer to set nails that need to be set, a jack plane was used to trim the window frame fillers, and probably most important of all, a combination square. On another note, just for those who need to know, my jigsaw was made in Switzerland (who knew??) and my miter saw made in Mexico (again, who knew??). I am also using an American made Bostitch compressor and finish nailer. Like more and more woodworkers nowadays, a good portion of the furniture I make is done with hand tools. However, when it comes to carpentry work, give me an air compressor and a finish nailer every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Without the power tools I used over the weekend, I wouldn’t have gotten done a quarter of the work I had accomplished.

Here is the funny part of all of this. A little part of me actually felt bad for a moment as I was using the miter saw to crosscut the wainscoting to length. It didn’t last long, but the feeling was there nonetheless. I didn’t necessarily feel bad about using the miter saw, but the fact that I felt like I was rushing. Then, my good sense returned it occurred to me that if I don’t get a move on I won’t get finished. There is a fine line between living in the moment while enjoying what you are doing and simply goofing off. As I said before, this is a big job for one man, and it needs to get done sooner rather than later so my wife and I can have a proper bedroom again. That means using the fastest, most efficient tools I have available to me. For example, had I been dilly dallying around rather than working at a good pace, I wouldn’t have discovered the fact that the original framers didn’t install a proper sill plate, or cripple studs on either window. My good pace allowed me to get that remedied and still get some work done after the fact, though it did really put a damper on the festivities. Had I decided to wait to get to the window, I wouldn’t have discovered the poor framing job until next weekend, when I will start working again, which really would have slowed me down. I also had to move two receptacles, as well as install a receptacle with USB chargers for the cell phones, as well as reroute the phone and cable lines, which also included installing new boxes for both. I’ll say it again: a lot of work for one man.

If I can offer any advice here, it would be: Don’t let anybody tell you that you are doing it wrong because you aren’t doing it they way they think it should be done. If you are using a table saw rather than a hand saw to work on your house or make furniture that is your business. Ask yourself this: What is more important, following tradition or improving your home? Let the answer be your guide. If you want to keep up tradition, by all means use all hand tools. I for one need to get done as quickly and painlessly as possible. I can certainly cut and install casing and trim by hand, I’ve done it before. In fact, not a month ago I installed chair rail in my sister’s dining room, nearly all cut by hand and installed with a hammer and nail set, and I did a damn good job if I must say so myself. The only reason I didn’t use power tools in that instance is because she doesn’t really have any, and my saw doesn’t fit in a Subaru Imprezza. In the end, I’m going to have a bedroom that looks great and I couldn’t care one bit on how I got there. In this case, the end result is all that matters.

P.S. Sorry about the poor photo quality. With my bedroom in complete disarray it’s not easy to get clear shots.

Short wall is finished.

Short wall is finished.

coming along

coming along

Me-1, old guys-0

Today I began what is going to be a somewhat challenging project, which is the remodel of our master bedroom (AKA the bedroom where my wife and I sleep, there’s nothing “master” about it). We’ve decided to replace all of the trim/woodwork in the bedroom, beginning with adding traditional tongue and groove wainscoting and rail. I informed my wife that this project would probably take two or three weekends to complete. She, on the other hand, over estimated my abilities and under estimated the complexity of the work and felt that we would probably be ready to paint in as little as one day. Long story short, my wife now knows that installing new woodwork from scratch in a room that doesn’t know the definition of the term ‘square’ is not nearly as easy as she thought it would be. In fact, I only succeeded in installing the new casings around the bedroom door and the closet door, and getting the wainscoting installed in the roughly six foot section of wall between them. I pointed out to my wife the many places where the headers weren’t level, the flooring uneven, and the walls crooked. She was surprised by the sloppiness of it, but I wasn’t.

I have replaced every single door in my house. When I say that, I just don’t mean the doors, but also the frames. Of the nine doors I’ve replaced, not one of them had a level header; not one. Generally you can chalk up a slightly out-of-level header to the house settling, but every one of these headers wasn’t just a little off kilter, they were either installed by a guy with a really large and heavy head that kept his neck tilted to the side, or by a guy who felt that a level header for your doorways really wasn’t all that important as long as he had plenty of shims. I can go on and on about some of the poor craftsmanship I’ve found inside my own house, and I’m sure other homeowners can say the same. The sad part is that I’ve run into this time and again in many houses that I’ve done work in. I’ve found that the worst culprits are houses built between 1940 and 1970, which my house falls in as it was completed in 1966. I’ve also found that the new homes being built today are constructed at a much higher level than older homes. I’m sure there are those that will question that opinion, but I do have my experiences to back me up. In general, newer homes are built tighter and much more square than their predecessors. You can say that in the old days they didn’t have laser levels, or prefab windows or doors, and I will say you are making my argument for me. If these guys were so good as we are led to believe, wouldn’t their work be much better than the modern carpenters who are dependent on such modern conveniences?

Let’s say that the settling of the foundation caused every header in my house to lose it’s level, and let’s say that every other time I’ve encountered an uneven header in another’s house it was for the same reasons, that still doesn’t account for the many crooked walls(meaning not square to the room), poorly hammered nails, and bad wiring jobs I’ve run into. All of that is just shoddy work, and I’ve seen it too many times to just chalk it up to a few bad apples. I simply believe that the average older home(50 years or more) is not as well constructed as the average home built today. That isn’t to say that there aren’t some completely lovely older homes, and of course there are some older homes that are stunning. And for the record, I’m sure there are some homes built today that have shoddy work in them. What I am saying is that on the average, a modern home is much better constructed than an older one. Maybe the carpenter on a modern site uses a skilsaw much more than a hand saw, but if the average old time carpenter couldn’t really saw all that straight anyway, where are the bragging rights in that? If you don’t believe me, check out a modern home build and compare it to an old house, and you will find there isn’t much of a comparison. I know that most people will not have that opportunity so you will just have to take my word for it.

So today I began phase one, which is the wainscoting. When I removed the original wainscoting and rail I found it sloppily done with studs that were between thirteen and eighteen inches on center; I guess the original framers felt that sixteen inches was just a give or take number. I’m using a prefab tongue and groove system that I picked up at a home center, and rest assured that every item I purchased for this project is made in America down to the caulk in case any dickwad out there wants to question my integrity. As I said earlier, I got around six feet of it installed today, which also involved a little bit of rewiring. Though my training is in electrical work and not carpentry, the work I completed today was plumb and square, which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for the stuff that was there originally. In fact, I’m going to brag and say that all of the work that I do is done in a ‘workman like, professional manner’. From what I’ve seen in my life, there aren’t a lot of old guys who can make that claim.

The Best Policy

Just today, my integrity concerning this blog was called into question. It seems that my purchasing of a shoe rack (American Made by the way) somehow has conflicted with my policy of no longer using Chinese made hardware and fasteners. I have a rule when it comes to buying, and that is: If I can by it ‘Made in America’ then that is what I’m buying. I’m not saying that every product in my home is made in America, but I can honestly say that the large majority of it is. Here is a quick rundown to prove my point, as I will share with you everything in my house that I either brought in, installed, or made since my wife and I have been living here.

Front Door-made right here in Pennsylvania. Front staircase-made it from Poplar. End tables, TV stand, Hall Table, and the Magazine Cabinet in my living room-Made them all myself. Sofa and Loveseat-purchased them from a furniture company that manufactures right here in Chester County, PA. Ceiling fans-all made in America.

Dining room chairs, table, and side board-Made in America. Bookshelf in dining room-made it myself.

All of my kitchen appliances and fittings-Made in America. My kitchen cabinets-Made in Lancaster County, PA. Silverware and China-Yeah, made in America. Countertop, made it myself. Flooring, made in America.

Bathroom-fixtures and toilet-Made in America. Medicine Cabinet-Made in America.

Bedroom-Furniture belonged to my wife’s grandmother-All made in America. Closet system-made it myself-closet pipe is American made EMT.

Daughter’s Bedroom-All of my daughter’s bedroom furniture is from the same collection, all made in Pennsylvania. I even made the crown moulding in her bedroom right in my garage.

Middle bedroom-End table-made it myself, closet system-made it myself, computer-made in the great state of Texas, chest of drawers-again made right here in Pennsylvania. Bookshelves-made both myself.

Washer and Dryer-made in America. Flooring in laundry room-made in America. Carpeting in family room-made in Pennsylvania. Sofa, chair, ottoman, and table and chairs in family room- all from the same company and collection Made in Pennsylvania. Bookshelf and TV cabinet-Made in America.

Cabinet, mirror, sink, toilet, flooring, racks, and lighting in downstairs bathroom-All made in America. All of the woodwork downstairs and up-American made. Racks in our downstairs storeroom-American Made!

Garage door and opener-yup, American. Workbench, stain cabinet, and tool chest-made them all myself. Boiler and Hot water heater-Made in America. Dartboard-made right here in Pennsylvania. ALL of my woodworking hand tools down to the dividers are made in America, Canada, England, France, or Germany. ALL of my electrical hand tools are American made Klein tools, with the exception of some Channel Lock pump pliers which were also made here in America. My socket and ratchet set, my hammers, my screwdrivers-ALL made in America.

My gutters-made on site. My fence-wood came straight from Chester county PA. My mailbox-that’s American made too! The windows we had installed two years ago? All made in America. All of the recessed lighting I put in-made in America as well. My Subaru? That’s made in Indiana.

I don’t dick around. When I say I try to buy American I mean it. When I say that I try to avoid Chinese made garbage I mean it. When I refuse to wear NIKE because they pay scumbags like Tiger Woods countless millions of dollars while they employ people at $2 per week I mean it. I’m not saying that everything in my house is American made, I’m sure that the TV’s aren’t made here, as well as most of my daughter’s toys, and probably a large portion of the clothing. But, IF I can buy American, I do it. I’m a man of convictions. I don’t lie; only pussies lie. When I say, or put into print that I am going to do something, I do it. Real men mean exactly what they say. Real men don’t bullshit. So when I say something on this blog, I am always doing my best to be completely honest and forthright, at least as much as I can be without revealing things I don’t want revealed with the general public. That is what I do here. I subscribe to honesty, because it’s always the best policy.

Do I have to build everything?

Like many women, my wife has somewhere in the neighborhood of forty five pairs of shoes. Needless to say, forty five pairs of shoes strewn haphazardly around the bedroom can at the least be messy, and at worst be a tripping hazard. When I remodeled our bedroom closet, my wife wanted me to put in a vertical shoe rack. The idea was sound, but a vertical shoe rack for forty five pairs of shoes would have taken up more than half of the usable closet space. Later, she had asked me to make one for her. I certainly have the skills and tools to make a shoe rack, in fact it would probably be a fairly simple project. But experience has taught me that there really are no simple projects, and even though it is ‘just a shoe rack’, if it is made of wood it will require: stock preparation, careful layout, solid joinery, and some sort of finish. All of a sudden that project doesn’t sound so simple, does it? Still, the least I could do is heed my lovely wife’s request and make her a shoe rack, right? The real truth is that I have absolutely no desire whatsoever to make a shoe rack. If the only thing I had on Earth to do woodworking wise was to make a shoe rack I would rather bring my tools to Mount Doom and cast them into the fire. In my little world, making a shoe rack is on par with getting a hernia examination. But aren’t woodworkers supposed to build stuff?

I think there is an ill conceived notion in the wonderful world of woodworking that if you are a ‘real’ woodworker you will have made just about everything in your house inside and out. Maybe in the ideal world that’s the case, but my world ain’t ideal. When I make furniture for my house, of course I want it to be something I need, and also be useful at that, but I also want to be inspired. When I saw the Stickley side table on Popular Woodworking’s website a few months ago I knew right then and there that I was going to build it one day. When it dawned on me that we needed a hall table, I immediately started researching table designs and drawing sketches. I’m not saying that every project starts out with a divine moment of inspiration, but it sure doesn’t hurt. So while giving my wife several different excuses for not making a shoe rack may not have been necessarily the nicest act I’ve ever committed as a father and husband, it kept me from spending hours doing something I didn’t want to do in the least.

The other day we were walking through Target and I spotted a shoe rack. It was reasonably priced, and while maybe it wouldn’t hold all forty five pairs of shoes, it would go a long way in organizing our bedroom closet, and it wasn’t bad looking. So we purchased that shoe rack; my wife is happy with it, and so am I. An added bonus to the purchasing of a shoe rack is that my wife decided to set free a few pairs of shoes that she really didn’t need anymore. So I have no problem with purchasing something I really don’t feel like making. I have a strong feeling that those who feel the need to make every little thing in their house, whether they want to or not, end up resenting doing it. I’m not going to be that guy; I want woodworking to be a fun hobby. So maybe my attitude doesn’t make me a ‘real’ woodworker. Well, I may not be a ‘real’ woodworker, but at least I’m a happy one.

I would like to thank God, and the academy…

I don’t consider this woodworking blog self-serving, not really. By that I mean I am not writing this blog for money or fame or infamy. I am, in a sense, probably like most home woodworkers in that I would love to be able to say that I make furniture for a living, but for many reasons I cannot. This blog is my nearest and best connection to the woodworking world; I also have an account on Lumberjocks that I admittedly don’t do much with. I sometimes post photos of the projects I make, but generally I go on the site just because I enjoy looking at the project photos of other amateur woodworkers. Last night, mainly out of boredom, I posted a few photos of my recent tool chest project with a brief description of the build and materials used. So it came as a pretty big surprise when I received an email this morning congratulating me for having my tool chest being voted a “Top 3 Daily” project on the Lumberjocks website. I’m not really sure how that all works, but I was very honored for my part that my project was selected. My only wish was that I had some better photos to post instead of the iPhone photos that I used.

So here is a link to the page for anybody who may wish to check it out. Those of you who read this blog on a regular or semi regular basis have probably seen the photos already. As I said, I’m not really sure how the top three projects of the day are chosen on Lumberjocks, but I really appreciate the fact that some person or persons thought enough of my woodworking to make it a featured project of the day.

Award winning tool chest.

Award winning tool chest.

I am a married woodworker.

February 4th, 2010, 2030 Hours, Chester County Pa.

I was thinking of making some changes to the pantry closet. New shelving, pine tongue and groove paneling, a small recessed light on a jamb switch. “What’s wrong with the way it is now?” There is no real lighting, the shelves aren’t spaced correctly, the paneling would really dress it up and make it look nicer. “Just change the shelves then!” If I do that I may as well add the paneling. “The paneling is a complete waste of money, just leave the pantry the way it is!”

Three months later…

“I thought you were going to re do the pantry closet?!” I was going to, but you told me it was a complete waste of money and to leave it the way it is. “No I didn’t!”

Sometime in May, 2010, Chester County Pa.

I was thinking of making a Stickley Magazine cabinet. “What is that?” It’s an Arts and Crafts cabinet, sort of like a bookshelf. “I don’t like Mission furniture.” It’s not Mission, it’s Arts and Crafts. “Where will you put it?” I think it will look nice in the bedroom, or maybe in the corner of the livingroom. “No.” No what? “It won’t look nice in either room!” How do you know? “I just know! We don’t have anything to match it!” Why don’t I build it first and then we’ll figure out a place to keep it. “Why don’t you just put it downstairs?”

Four months later my wife’s aunt is visiting…

“That bookshelf is absolutely beautiful! Where did you get it?” “Bill made it.” “It looks great.” “I know, I wanted him to make two of them.”

April 2013, Chester County PA.

I was thinking of making matching end tables for the living room. “Why, we have end tables already.” I know, but I want them to match the hall table and the TV stand. We can put the old end tables in the family room. “There’s nothing wrong with the end tables we have.” I didn’t say that there was, I am just saying that a pair that matches the other furniture I made would look nice, and now we can have table lamps downstairs like you’ve been wanting. “When did I say I wanted table lamps for the family room?” I thought you did? “Why don’t you fix the pantry instead?” You told me it was a waste of money. “No I didn’t!”

Six weeks later…

“The tables look great!” Thanks, they turned out better than I thought they would. “Bring the old ones downstairs. Now I can finally get table lamps!”

Just a few days ago…

I was thinking of going to Lowe’s and picking up some tongue and groove paneling. “What for?” I was going to start on the pantry this weekend. “That’s a complete waste of money!”

My name is Bill, and I’m a married woodworker.

The End

Over a two day period, I had for numerous reasons considered ending this blog, not ending it, and ending it again. Something I had found out on Friday afternoon nearly changed my mind and made me forget the whole idea, and then, just this morning, I realized that I was mistaken and nothing had changed. So to call this my “Farewell Post” may be a bit hasty, yet it might also be appropriate. If anything, I’m sorry to be so cryptic, as there is nothing sinister going on here, either with the posts or my motives. But I do feel obliged to explain myself, at least somewhat.

I comment on other blogs fairly often; most of them are woodworking in nature. I’ve said many times before, and I’ll say again, generally the blog writers are very good about responding to comments, if there is a need to respond, and the conversation is very friendly. At that, the conversation should be friendly as my comments are generally very innocuous and friendly in nature. I don’t make it a habit to be the woodworking blog version of a hit-and-run commenter who leaves nasty remarks in the hopes of getting somebody worked up. That is the way it should be really, as woodworking is supposed to be a fun hobby. Less often I will comment on a professional blog, much less often in fact. When I do on the rare occasion leave a comment it usually isn’t answered, and that’s understandable. So I leave it at that. But last week I commented on a post, somewhere, I won’t say where, and with that comment it finally and truly dawned on me that if indeed there is a woodworking “community”, a person like myself will never be a part of it.

I’ve written many times before on this blog the reasons why I started it. Like most woodworkers who start a blog, I was looking to become part of the club, not as a professional writer or woodworker, but as an amateur who wanted to share his ideas, and projects, and of course get some advice. I discovered that just like in other social structures, there is a “cool” clique. The cool clique is pretty much set in its membership, and isn’t really looking for new pledges. That was hardly a surprise, but what did surprise me was the subset of the cool clique. I’ve discovered that the subset consists of doctors, engineers, professors, and various other “professionals”. Though I noticed this on the web fairly early, it didn’t really bother me until I ran into it in the real world of woodworking, meaning shows and classes. This is the group of people that would rather not have guys like me in their presence. They would prefer that I stay home and keep my mouth shut and my opinions to myself. I can live with that as well, because I feel the same way about certain people myself. But my problem with the arrangement is that the cool clique and its subset have come to dominate the world of woodworking, at least the tangible world of magazines, blogs, and woodworking shows.

Here again, I have no problem with what any honest person does to make an honest living. What you do for a living is your business. It only becomes my business when it gets thrown in my face. The woodworking community is dominated by those professionals, as well as the journalists who write for the magazines. The woodworking community has become a very upper crust sector of society, or at least that is my perception of it. You don’t need to look farther than the cost of taking a woodworking class to figure that out. An average week long furniture making class will cost you upwards of $1500, that is if you can get the time off from work to take it. My wife and I make a decent living, but $1500 and a week off from work is not in our budget. With that being said, this really has nothing to do with money, just the attitude behind it. A very wealthy person I know once said to me “Do you know why a Rolls Royce is so expensive? So people like you cannot afford to own one.” He wasn’t being mean or condescending, in fact he was giving some of the best practical advice that I was ever to receive and teaching me a valuable lesson.

My name is Bill Lattanzio. I grew up in North Philadelphia, a block away from one of the worst housing projects in the city. My dad worked in a factory; my mom was a secretary for an exterminator. I didn’t grow up on an idealized farm or country road, with a workshop next to the orchard where my grandfather taught me the ancient secrets of woodworking. I’m neither boasting nor lamenting those facts; I am just stating them for what they are. I thought it would be interesting to be involved in a world like that possibly; I was probably reaching a little bit but you can’t fault me for that. I wasn’t seeking acceptance from the cool clique, just the right to enter the club, sit at the meetings, and add my two cents when I felt the need. I found out the other day that it was never going to happen, because people like me don’t mix with people like them. I have a few too many vowels in my last name, a few too many scars, and not enough ivy on my diploma. I’m not surprised, though. It’s no different than anything else.

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