I hope that all of you both here in America, and around the world, have a great and happy Thanksgiving Day! Here in America, we take it as a day to celebrate with our families and count our blessings. I can say that I try to do so everyday, though sometimes I forget to. But when I think of everything that I am truly fortunate enough to have, it is nothing short of a humbling feeling. So thank you all, and have a great day tomorrow.
Today I came to the unfortunate conclusion that I probably will not be starting any new projects until the New Year. Firstly, with Christmas approaching money will be a little tight, and that means no stock, and no stock means no new projects. Secondly, it is unseasonably cold and it is supposed to remain that way for the foreseeable future. I’ve learned the hard way that woodworking in a cold garage is nothing more than tempting fate, with yourself and with your project. The silver lining of this cold, dark cloud is that I already know what I want to build in the coming months. Considering the fact that at the end of last year I was mired in woodworking doldrums, this could be a good sign.
My first project of the new year will probably be my wife’s blanket chest for the living room. Though I just completed a chest, it is far too big to work where my wife wanted it, so we will use it as a toy chest for my daughter. Though I kid around about it sometimes, I really do want to make my wife happy, and this chest is something she has wanted for quite some time. For the chest design, I will go the more traditional, floor chest route. I’m thinking of basing my chest on the classic six-board designs seen in The Pine Furniture of Early New England. I will use traditional cut nails for the joinery, and it will also be a very good excuse to use my new Lie Nielsen tongue and groove plane.
Though I’m not sure what the building order may be, I would like my next furniture project to be the Stickley #802 that I’ve been wanting to make for months. I’ve been searching the internet for real world examples of the table and after seeing several woodworkers build some really nice examples, I am even more excited to get the table made. As I was saying in my last post, all nice furniture has a place in your home, and it’s up for us as woodworkers to determine that place. As far as the #802 is concerned, I know of at least three spots in my house right now where the table would look great, and if that’s not enough of a reason to make it then I don’t know what is.
The other project I want to build I’ve been considering for some time, and I finally found the inspiration to start planning it. A few weeks back I happened to watch an episode of The New Yankee Workshop online. The project Norm built was an Arts & Crafts style entryway mirror. Though there a few minor details I would change about the design, overall I think it would work well in our entryway. For months I had been considering making an entry mirror, but I could never find a design that really caught my eye. I’m happy to say that I finally found one that I like.
What else would I like to build next year? Furniture wise that is it. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but for the time being we are really not in need of any more furniture. Well, I would love to make a bedroom set but a project like that is way out of my budget. So with only two or three projects in the hopper for next year it sounds like a dull new year on the way…Not really.
In my last few posts, I’ve been writing about tools and my workbench, among other things. I had mentioned that there really are only a few more woodworking tools that I am interested in purchasing. That is true, I can really only name a handful of tools that I would like to buy, but there are also several that I would like to make. I think I’ve found a way to bridge the gap between larger furniture builds and the cold winter, and that is making some woodworking tools. For instance, last year I made a block plane in our spare bedroom; I only needed a flat sheet of plywood and a few hand tools. Though it was cold both outside and in the garage at the time, I hardly knew it. A few years ago I wouldn’t have considered making my own tools. I was still a rookie then, and in retrospect that was probably a good idea, because to make nice tools you already need to have a few nice tools, not only to build with, but as an example of what you are striving to make. Since then, I’ve found that you have to be really talented to make a world class tool, but making a serviceable tool isn’t as difficult to do, and is also good practice. The little refinements in a shop made tool: shaping a handle, flattening a plane sole, aligning a dowel, etc. are all great practice for making furniture, and for practicing design. Best of all, you can make your own tools generally much cheaper than purchasing them.
I am hoping to complete four tools next year: a smooth plane, a shoulder plane, a mid-sized carpenters mallet, and a brass hammer for setting plane irons. The good news is that I already know exactly what designs I want to make. Unlike my jointer plane, which I made on a wing and a prayer, I have plans ready to go for each one of these tools, though that doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t modify those plans; that is part of the fun.
So those are my goals for next year. I’m not sure if I will accomplish them all or not, but I feel better for having set them. Whatever happens, if I do accomplish all I want to accomplish, I think it will be quite a feat. I believe I am up to the challenge, but we’ll see. A lot can happen in a year, and it is my hope that a lot does happen in my little garage workshop.
My wife does not often commission furniture from me. Generally, I will tell her what I want to make and generally she will question everything about it until I either decide to not build it, or build it out of spite. But every so often the natural order of things will be dismissed in favor of chaos. My recent blanket chest build falls into this category.
It started out innocently enough. My wife had mentioned that we had needed a place to store blankets and linens, and I had mentioned that I would like to build a storage chest. For a moment it seemed that we had achieved a sort of synergy resulting from our many years together, and knowing each others wants and needs so well. Of course that really wasn’t the case, because I had made several drawings, all of which my wife hated, until she reluctantly settled on one of my last attempts. The final “negotiations” were this: I want it to fit here! Well, with all of my careful measuring and planning, not to mention my wonderful eye for detail, the chest still did not fit where my wife wanted it to fit. Let me rephrase that; it fit, but it didn’t “fit”. And that, as they say, is that.
This weekend I had planned on starting the finishing phase of the chest. For the time being, I placed the chest in our family room, mainly to get it out of the garage where it was taking up a lot of space. Unfortunately, it is cold outside, and when it is cold outside, it is cold in the garage. The weather actually torpedoed two of my woodworking plans for the weekend; the chest finish being one, and some tool maintenance being the other. I decided to make the best of a bad situation, and that meant getting the blanket chest situated in the family room rather than having it placed haphazardly next to the sofa. So I did a bit of furniture rearranging, stored some of my daughters toys and dolls inside the chest, and placed it exactly in the spot I had been saving for my Arts and Crafts Sideboard project that I’ve been wanting to build for the past six months. While I was putting everything away, and once again considering adding the faux panels to the chest that my wife vetoed, it occurred to me that the chest not only fit in the space I placed it in, it also “fit” in the space as well. In fact, I could see the finished chest in my mind, and in my mind it looked pretty great right where it was at.
So this weekend was pretty much a wash for me woodworking wise. I didn’t get to start finishing my blanket chest; I didn’t get to add the new bottoms to my workbench tool tray, and I didn’t get to do any sharpening. But I did learn a couple of valuable lessons; one being that just because a piece of furniture physically fits in a space, it does not mean that it “fits” in that space. The second lesson I learned is much more important however, and it is somewhat more subtle. I found that a nice piece of furniture always has a place in your house, you just have to find the place that it fits.
I have a pet cat. It wasn’t supposed to be my cat; my wife and I adopted her from one of those animal rescue centers and gave her to my daughter for Christmas last year. But the cat gravitates to me. According to the line of succession I should be way down on the list, somewhere between my brother-in-law and the mailman. Nonetheless, I am first on the cat’s chart. I am the first person that the cat wakes up every morning, right around 3 a.m. to be exact. The cat follows me wherever I go most of the time. When the cat wants to play I’m the first picked. I have become the de facto best friend to the cat.
The truth is that I don’t like cats. Okay, that is harsh. I have nothing against cats whatsoever, but I basically want our relationship to be two beings who pass in the hall every morning, acknowledge each other’s existence, and then get on with the rest our day. The only thing I ask of the cat is to not kill me when I’m carrying something heavy down the stairs, though she has tried. For not killing me, she gets a place to live and something to eat. I also have to clean up after the cat most of the time. If there is a God, and I believe there is, I don’t think the Almighty put me on the Earth to clean cat litter. Of course I do it every day, but I like to believe it wasn’t part of God’s grand plan. For an animal that weighs five pounds and sleeps 23 hours a day, she has somehow come to dominate my house.
I woodwork in my garage. I generally keep the door to the house closed and the garage door open, especially if I am using the table saw. However, if the table saw is not involved, and I am using hand tools, the door may or may not be open. Every single time the door is open the cat makes an appearance. When the cat makes an appearance, her grand tour of the garage invariably ends at my workbench, whether I’m using it or not. When I went in the garage a few nights ago the cat was already in there, on top of my bench and ready to go. I wasn’t surprised, the door was open and the light was on; that is the cat equivalent of a VIP invitation. Tonight, when I went into my garage to soak my sharpening stone, the door was already open, but there was no cat at the bench. I actually went looking for her, and found her sleeping on top of a blanket. I honestly missed the little bastard. Why? I don’t know, really. Maybe I actually like the cat. Maybe I’m just an idiot.
When it comes to purchasing woodworking tools, I’ll be the first to admit that I never really adhered to any strict guidelines. When I first started attempting to make furniture, I did it using tools that I had already owned for doing carpentry, and to some extent, electrical work. I written before on this blog about my attempts to pinpoint the first tools I ever purchased explicitly to use for furniture making. I never really found a definitive answer, but just yesterday I think I discovered an important clue.
Starting in 2004, every year around the Thanksgiving holiday I’ve read the book One Man’s Wilderness written by Sam Keith and taken from the journals of Richard Proenneke. Proenneke, for those of you who don’t know, was a man who in 1968 moved to a remote area of the Alaskan Wilderness and decided to live as closely to nature as possible. He was somewhat of a modern day Thoreau, or an Anarchist if you will. His philosophy was a fairly simple one: live close to nature and rely as little as possible on manufactured items. Proenneke built with hand tools his log cabin, his cache and wood shed, the cabin furnishings, and even many of his utensils. When it came to using manufactured goods, Proenneke was even more resourceful. He fashioned hinges and tool boxes out of gas cans. He made a snow shovel from a barrel. He even made a true thermopane window using sheets of mylar. To truly understand the depths of his skills you have to read his journals, as a few paragraphs of my blog do him no justice at all. There was little the man couldn’t do with a few tools and his mind, for not only was Proenneke a highly skilled carpenter, he was by all accounts just as good a diesel mechanic. In fact, many who met him came to the conclusion that not only was he a mechanical genius by any standard, he was more than likely an intellectual genius as well. Though Proenneke was not known for making fine furniture, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that had he chosen to, he could have been one of the finest furniture makers of the 20th century. Richard Proenneke was and is my main inspiration, not just as a woodworker, but a human being as well. His journals should be required reading for the human race in my humble opinion.
So just last night I started reading One Man’s Wilderness again for at least the tenth time. Each and every time I get to the section where Proenneke describes his toolset I am amazed. The set he uses to build everything he has, including his home, is ridiculously small even by a minimalists standard. The set includes: A rip saw, a cross-cut saw, two auger bits (no brace-he made the handles out of spruce), a draw-knife, two flat socket chisels (made the handles out of spruce), a gouge chisel, a combination square, a set of dividers, a double bitted axe, a mallet (that he made out of spruce), a hammer, an adze, a trowel, a pocket knife, saw files, an oil stone, a pair of tin snips, and later a jack-plane from his bush-pilot friend that he restored to working condition. Does that sound like a lot of tools? Aside from the adze and rip saw, I have all of those tools, and they wouldn’t even take up half of the top compartment of my tool chest. Let me repeat: nearly everything the man had: his house, his fireplace, his furniture, his bed, his toolboxes, his countertops, his chairs, his desk, his storage cache, his woodshed, his outhouse, his utensils, his sled, his ladders…he made all of them with just that set of tools. If that isn’t impressive I don’t know what is.
Anyway, last night I’m reading One Man’s Wilderness and I come to the paragraph concerning Proenneke’s tools. Something is familiar. It dawns on me that before I ever considered making furniture I actually did purchase some woodworking tools. One was a brace and a few bits for it, another was a few chisels, including a gouge. I also purchased a set of dividers and a hand plane (which admittedly wasn’t a very good one). Why in the world would I have purchased those tools if I wasn’t planning on making furniture? It certainly wasn’t for building a log cabin, as appealing an idea as that can be sometimes. I knew that my wife would never go for that. But it was, in my own small way, maybe even subconsciously, an emulation of my idol. I truly realized for the first time last night that Richard Proenneke, my spiritual woodworking father, also is the inspiration for my tool set. At that, I could not have chosen better.
Two weeks ago, I purchased a new set of chisels. I technically didn’t need them, but I received a notification from Amazon that there was a price drop so I purchased them. I went with the Stanley Sweetheart four-piece set. Because I already own the 5/8″ and 1 1/4″ Sweethearts I was already familiar with them and their quality. With my rewards points, and with a sale price of under $80 for the set, I ended up paying less than $60 including free shipping. I could not pass up the deal. My former set of chisels from MHG were good, but I like the Stanley set much better. In fact, I would even make the claim that dollar for dollar they are the best chisels on the market. You are not, anywhere, getting a chisel of this quality for less than $20 each, not even used. I would even go on record as saying that they are in the ballpark of the Lie Nielsen version, which is the nearest comparison considering they are of the same design. While I still consider the Lie Nielsen’s the best produced, at nearly triple the cost they may not be the best value if you want to get all “labor theory of value” technical.
With my latest purchase I came to the happy conclusion that the woodworking tool set I’ve always wanted is nearly complete. There was a time when I wouldn’t have been happy to make that claim, because like any other woodworker, I enjoy purchasing new tools. But woodworking has stopped being about tool collecting for me. Other woodworkers may purchase tools for collection and use until the day they quit the hobby, and there is absolutely, positively nothing wrong with that. On the other hand, I am going down the Richard Proenneke path, at least somewhat. There really are only a handful of other woodworking tools that I would like to get before I call my tool chest full: a plough plane and a rip saw being at the top of the list. I am not saying that I will never purchase another woodworking tool; for instance I would love to have a full set of moulding planes, but they likely will be forever out of my budget. Yet, after reading one of my favorite books once again last night, I learned another valuable lesson from its words. I have just about every tool I will ever need already sitting in my tool chest. The set is all of high quality, and every tool in it should last lifetimes. This weekend I will set aside a few hours to do some sharpening and general care of those tools, just as Richard Proenneke did every day. The truth is that it always bothered me a little that I didn’t have guidance when it came to purchasing woodworking tools, and I sometimes wondered about the choices that I made, but now I couldn’t be more happy that I went the route that I did. It turns out that I did have guidance, some of the best I’ve ever received actually, and there really was a method to my madness. I think that Richard Proenneke, the man I look up to and want to emulate more than any other man, would approve of my tool set had he seen it. That thought couldn’t make me happier.
IF I learned one thing over the past two weekends, I learned that I don’t enjoy building workbenches. There are some woodworkers that love constructing benches and everything that goes along with it, and to that I say ‘Whatever makes you happy’. Building workbenches does not make me happy; nor does modifying them, flattening them, or fixing them. Why? I think the main reason is because of the size of the parts you are dealing with when it comes to workbench construction. For instance, I had to maneuver my new workbench top, which is roughly six feet long, sixteen inches wide, and three inches thick, and which weighs around one hundred pounds, around my garage at least half a dozen times yesterday morning. My garage is just over twelve feet wide, and that is before you count the other stuff in it. It was a real dance getting that thing where I wanted it to go, even though I had to carefully plan out each motion so as not to drop it, or trip, or knock something over with it. I’ve found that when you are building something large, you need a proportionally large space to build it in. Of course, I knew that already, having learned the lesson several times beforehand. Yesterday morning’s lesson was just an audit of a class I had already taken.
Once and for all, I decided to add the tool tray to my workbench top and attach it to the base. It is my hope that this will not only make my woodworking more enjoyable, but also end my bitching about the topic. Yesterday morning I started early. I had a few things I needed to do to get the new top prepared for the tool tray. The first thing needed to be done was to make some Dutchmen to fill in the recesses I had on my old bench top, which is now the underside of my new top. I made the Dutchmen from some 3/8 poplar scrap I had. I glued them into place and clamped them, and while they were drying I started building the three boxes that would make up the new tool tray.
I made the center box first, because it is the largest, and also because it is deeper than the other two. I wanted a box deep enough to lay any of my bench planes on their sides without sticking out, and that meant a recess at least 3 1/4 inches deep to be on the safe side. I sized the length of the box to fit in between the back legs of the workbench. Happily, the legs were relatively square, so the tray fit if fairly nicely. The construction of the tray was simple: pocket screws and glue, with 1/2″ cleats to hold the tray bottoms. Once the first tray was completed, I planed down the two Dutchmen I had made, and attached the new workbench top to the base. Originally, the top was held to the base with some ‘L’ brackets, and four 3/4″ oak pegs. The pegs are what really gave the top stability, but yesterday I had to use the ‘L’ brackets only, as my work would possibly need adjusting. Thankfully everything fit, so I attached the top to the base. At that, I changed the top configuration a bit. Originally, my workbench had equal over hang on each side of the bench. I found that very rarely did I do any work on the left side of the leg vice, so I left only a six inch overhang, with the right side of the bench getting the majority.
The other two boxes/trays I made by measuring off the first tray. They are not as deep, only two inches with the tray bottoms attached. I plan on using those as hardware bins, though chisels also fit in nicely. Ideally, I would have made the tray all as one unit notched around the benches base, with corresponding rabbets and dados for separating the compartments. That certainly would have been the proper way to do it, as well as a cleaner build. Unfortunately for me there was nothing ideal about this project. In fact, I would go on record as saying that the trays I made are just okay, and probably represent some of the worst woodworking I’ve done in years. They are a bit too sloppy for my tastes. I could always reconstruct them the “right” way, and somebody may point out that I should have done that in the first place. I would point out that the “right” way would have cost me a lot more money than this did, which was next to nothing. I don’t usually spend the bucks unless I know for sure that it will work. If this experiment is a success, and hopefully it is, I will make all of the proper changes.
So for all intents and purposes my new top and tray is finished and ready for work. I still need to peg the bench to the base, which shouldn’t be too difficult. One other thing I would like to touch on is dog holes. When I ripped down my original top, the original dog holes were removed, leaving only four that I had near the center of the bench that I used for the holdfasts. Catching a lucky break, it turned out that those four dog holes were nearly perfectly placed, so I reused them. I will probably add another four to the same row, but for the time being I will not be adding a front row of holes, nor a tail vice of any kind. I very rarely used that front row of holes; the middle row for the holdfasts saw much more use. The same can be said for a tail vice: I almost never used it. In my experience, holdfasts work for nearly all of the clamping that I ask a workbench to do, and a planing stop in the leg vice was more than enough for hand plane use. There is probably something to be said for my theories, because in some old photos of woodworking benches that I’ve seen there was no front row of dog holes either.
There are still a few small tasks I need to complete other than pegging the bench top: attaching the board jack (or ‘dead man’ if you prefer), adding a few more dog holes, and finally adding a protective finish to the new top. Those jobs shouldn’t take too long, and in the meanwhile my bench is up and running again. I’ve said before, this is a temporary arraignment. ‘Temporary’ may mean twelve months or more, however. But what I am saying is this is not my last workbench. I have come to the realization that my next bench may be purchased and not made. I don’t have the time or patience to spend months upon months making a woodworking bench. From the research I’ve done, it is nearly as cost effective to purchase a bench from Lie Nielsen, Sjobergs, or Veritas than it is to make one yourself, and it is much, much faster. While I try not to make everything about costs and time, I am making an exception in the case of a workbench. Building a workbench isn’t the same thing as building a cabinet or an end table. We are talking a very sizeable investment of time and money. For some reason, woodworkers seem to think that they need to build everything. That may be somewhat of a healthy attitude, but it isn’t necessarily smart. For instance, I, or any fairly mechanically skilled person, could probably build an automobile given the time and money, but purchasing one is the smarter move for most people. What is the comparison? I believe that workbenches are the woodworking equivalent of a car. Just like nearly everybody needs a car, nearly every woodworker needs a bench as well, as they are one of the most used woodworking tools; and just like a car, they are often one of the more costly purchases you will make. The truth is, a good woodworking bench, either shop made or purchased, is probably the most expensive tool that a home woodworker owns, with the possible exception of a (higher end) table saw. Making a good bench can cost upwards of $1000; and purchasing one can cost even more, though it will not cost any time, which is the one commodity that all of us need more of. At that, I rest my case.
On a final note…I generally don’t offer much advice on this blog, but if I may offer some, it would be this: If you are a new woodworker and you are planning on making a workbench, make it as cheaply as possible. My suggestion would be the Bob Key good, fast, and cheap bench. Use that bench for a while, see what you like and don’t like about it, and then save your money and purchase the nearest and best bench that fits your needs. While I will be the last person to deny the need a woodworker has for a good woodworking bench, they are also one of the more overrated tools you will ever own, at least when compared to the cost and time needed to make one. You can make a lot of nice furniture in the time it takes to make a workbench, and you can be learning a lot more about woodworking while doing it. Still, if you want to be a bench builder then by all means do it, but if you want to make furniture there are other ways to go about it than spending months building a giant clamp.
I was reading a blog post from Christopher Schwarz on the Popular Woodworking Magazine web page a little while ago and it got me to thinking a little about the need for furniture. The blog post concerns a 1943 furniture advertisement from England. The furniture, called ‘Utility Furniture’ in the ad, is of the plain, but serviceable variety. I checked out the photo, and remembering the era it came from and why it was born, considered it fairly nice stuff. Some commenters felt that the furniture was nothing short of ugly, but surprisingly, most were of the same opinion as I: While the furniture was nothing special in the looks department, it filled a need, was serviceable, and most importantly, was affordable in a country that was at the time neck deep in a World War.
When it comes to furniture, I have very strong opinions. Those opinions have nothing to do with style, or material, or design, but of the end user, meaning the person or family who is using it. For me, a piece of furniture is special if it was purchased because it was the best a family could afford. If a family decides to purchase bedroom furniture from Ikea for their children because it is the best they can afford, and because of that their children have a decent place to sleep at night, I believe that it is beyond mine, or anybody else’s criticism. I feel the same way about the furniture that the home woodworking hobbyist builds. If a person decides that he or she would like to make a piece of furniture for their home, and they make it with their own hands using the best tools that they can afford, where is the problem with that scenario? How can anybody feel they have the right to judge that person, or what they made? Maybe I shouldn’t complain, because if not for people like that, I probably wouldn’t have a woodworking blog at the moment.
I’m not saying that I am without fault. For months I have been ranting and raving about cheaply made hardware, and to a lesser extent, Chinese made tools. I certainly still stand by my beliefs and opinions on the subject, but part of that reason is because I am fortunate enough to have a good job and to be married to a woman who can say the same. I can afford to have convictions, I can afford to own a decent set of woodworking tools. There are many, both here in America, and around the world, that cannot make that claim. I am proud to say that on this blog, or on another’s blog, that I have never criticized other woodworkers tool purchases or the furniture they make. I also don’t criticize factory made furniture, for without it many people probably couldn’t afford to furnish their homes, and quite possibly, the hobby of woodworking may not even exist, at least not in the form that we all know it.
All things are relative, and beauty is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. The cynic would say that all manufactured furniture is ugly, and that the only real furniture is built by highly skilled craftsman, either professional or hobbyist. The idealist may say the same thing, but in a different way. And the realist may meet those ideals somewhere in the middle. I am equal parts cynic, idealist, and realist, but when it comes down to it, I don’t believe there is any such thing as ‘Ugly Furniture’. Some of that so-called ugly furniture was where families shared their days together, or where they had their daily meals and holiday feasts, or where they slept after a long day of work. Some of that ugly furniture may have been a persons first woodworking project that they are proud of. Some of that ugly furniture may have been the first piece of furniture that a person or family could afford to own, whether shop made or purchased. There is something to be said there, about all of those things. Maybe I am nothing more than a rank sentimentalist, but to me, when it comes down to it, all furniture is beautiful.