The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Monthly Archives: June 2014

When I’m 64

In theory, the older a person gets, the smarter he or she gets. I’m not implying that age begets intelligence, but age does offer experience. For example, when I was four years old, I probably had no idea what a chisel was, but by the time I was a teenager I knew not only what a chisel was, but how it worked. Keep in mind, at that point I had never really used a chisel, but my lack of practical knowledge was not a factor in obtaining theoretical knowledge. The average person can probably say the same concerning many different subjects. Ask most people what a space shuttle is and they can probably tell you, though they have no idea how to fly it. I’ve found that most woodworking “advice” columns assume that the people reading them are not only complete imbeciles, but they really have never woodworked before, or held a tool before, or have seen a tool before, or know how to tie a pair of shoes.

A typical woodworking advice article will usually start out something like this: ‘First, get yourself a chisel, learn how to sharpen it, get a feel for it’s weight. When you think it’s sharp, it’s not! Sharpen it again, and keep sharpening til you get it right! Use that chisel, learn to keep it sharp, learn how it works. Then, when you’ve mastered that chisel, get yourself another size…’. Is that good advice? I guess that depends on the reader. If the person reading that advice had never heard of woodworking before, and really wasn’t sure what a chisel does, I would say that it’s probably good advice. So, I would say that the advice is probably fit for a twelve year old kid taking a shop class, but for the average adult with any life experience that advice simply sucks ass.

Here is why that advice is good for a kid taking a shop class. For 40 minutes a day, 5 days a week, that kid will sit on his stool at his bench in class and learn how to sharpen his chisel. Maybe after a month or so he will actually be pretty good at it. The teacher will probably yell at him a few times because he did something foolish. Eventually, he will move onto a new tool, perhaps a saw, or a block plane. By the end of the school year, he will have learned the basics of basic woodworking tools, he probably will have built a table or a step stool, and he might even be pretty good at it. Some kids may even have taken their new woodworking education a step further by reading a few books or magazines on the side, but most won’t.

Here is why that advice sucks for a middle aged man: For 10 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week, that middle aged man will be at work doing his job. Maybe for an hour or two every other weekend he will get to putter around his little workshop. He probably already owns a few power tools and some basic hand tools. He knows a little bit about joinery, and how furniture is assembled. Being that he is middle aged, he hopefully has some life experience on his side. He’s probably read a book or two on woodworking, and he’s likely done some work around the house. In short, he’s not a stupid kid.

I’m tired of seeing woodworking advice written for stupid kids. The sad part about it is, there are some fools out there who read this garbage and think it’s genius; not only genius, but NEW genius. I started woodworking roughly 5 years ago. When I say ‘woodworking’ I mean building furniture. Before that I had used tools, fixed things, and so on. Those were life experiences that can apply to woodworking. I make that statement as no Earth-shattering revelation; most people can say the same. But let’s say that 5 years ago I went the route of “purchase a chisel, learn how to sharpen…” Maybe now at the age of 41 I would have finally have a somewhat usable set of tools. Sure, I would have learned how to sharpen and use them piece meal, and maybe that is the best way to do it. But it wouldn’t have been fun, and part of the reason I woodwork is to enjoy myself. And being that I’m not 13 years old anymore, I don’t have the time to practice a hobby without enjoying myself. And while we’re on the subject, you aren’t building while you’re sharpening chisels for 28 weeks straight, and if you aren’t building furniture out of wood then you aren’t woodworking.

So once again the guy who doesn’t offer advice is going to offer some advice. If you are new to woodworking and you read a magazine article or blog post that says “First, get yourself a chisel…” then do yourself a favor and throw it in the furnace. Instead, pick yourself up a decent set of tools and build something with them. If you’re an adult with half a brain then you will learn as you go and you might even enjoy yourself a little.

And I’ll also offer some advice to you if you are a professional woodworker who is planning on writing a “First, get yourself a chisel…” post. Do yourself and everybody else a favor and don’t write it. It’s been said a thousand times before and it really wasn’t very good then either. You see, we’re all adults here. Most woodworkers already know that their chisel needs to be sharp. It just so happens that most adult woodworkers just don’t have the kind of time to dedicate to studying every bit of minutiae concerning woodworking chisels. It’s a chisel lame brain! We get it! Before telling everybody to “get yourself a chisel” I would suggest getting yourself a clue, figuring out who your audience is supposed to be, and then learning how to write to a target demographic.

IF I, and many of the other woodworkers who’ve started at the same point of their lives that I did, actually followed this mind-blowing “get yourself a chisel…” advice, we would finally get around to making furniture somewhere around retirement age. Sounds fun. I could be wrong here, but shouldn’t woodworking advice encourage people to actually build furniture and not worship tools? Because like I said before: if you aren’t building furniture, then you aren’t woodworking.

Norwegian Wood

One day during the next week I plan to make a trip to Hearne Hardwoods and pick up some actual nice material for woodworking. For the past year I’ve been using nothing but Poplar and Pine and I’m at the point where I’m looking to break up the monotony a little bit and try something new. A few days ago I had written a post about not only making a Stickley #79 magazine cabinet, but also a Shaker Enfield Cupboard. For the Stickley piece I plan on using White Oak, which would be true to the original, but the cupboard is another matter.

Originally, the cupboard was made with Pine, just like a good majority of Shaker furniture was made. Most of the examples I’ve seen also have been made with Pine. Though I’m sick of using Pine in a big way, I would like to paint this cupboard, and it seems really stupid to use a nice hardwood only to cover it up with paint. Of course I could, and probably should use Poplar, but as far as wood grades are concerned that is like trading up from a Pinto to a LeCar. And using an exotic wood on a Shaker project seems out of place, and would probably look a bit ostentatious.

So it looks like I will use Pine or Poplar for at least one more project. The problem is that furniture made from “fancy” woods such as Mahogany just wouldn’t look right in my house, and practical woods such as Pine and Oak seem to fit the Bill, both literally and figuratively. Worst of all, I have a little money to spend, and I’m going to a hardwood dealer that has just about anything you could ever ask for. When a woodworker goes to a place such as Hearne he doesn’t want to come back with Pine and Poplar and Oak, he wants to come back with wood from an exotic tree you would find in a Tolkien story. For once in my life I’ve managed a champagne budget for the material I want, but I still have beer taste when it comes to what I want to build with it.

Hello Goodbye

It looks like another master woodworker is entering his wise opinion in the mix and telling us amateurs how to become real woodworkers. I look forward to reading the same redundant bullshit I’ve seen from a hundred other sources over the past four years.

Paperback Writer.

Yesterday I received a nice email from a person whom I’ve never met or spoken with. The person just wanted to let me know that he enjoyed my blog and thought that I was a talented and entertaining writer, and that maybe one day I should consider writing a book on woodworking. I was flattered, and though I’m really not sure if I am a talented writer or not, I did thank him for the compliment and his time.

I’ll give you the plain truth, I don’t know if I’m a good writer, or a bad writer, or even a writer at all. I know a few of the basics tenets of writing. Though I may be just a half Italian, half-Irish thug from North Philly I did take some writing courses in my time; I even once took a basic journalism course. I’ve read a lot of books in my life, and I like to think that I can distinguish good writing from bad writing. I’m not ultra-perceptive; I can read between the lines, but I don’t always see the deep meaning in books and films that those more savvy than I perceive and understand without straining a brain cell. But I do have an opinion, and I know how to express my opinion, and I certainly know how to convey my emotions “on paper” in such a way that leaves no misunderstandings. But whether or not that makes my writing “good” is a question I cannot answer.

Here is what I do know: I don’t have anywhere near the amount of experience needed to write a woodworking book; not even close. Even if I did have that experience, I have no idea what I would write about. But I also know that the writing in the woodworking books I’ve read leaves something to be desired. Some of that writing is nothing more than semi-coherent instructions on how to build a specific piece of furniture. A book with good photos definitely counts for something, in particular when those photos detail a construction procedure such as joinery, but generally they are dull to read. There have been some exceptions. I’ve only read two of Roy Underhill’s books, but I enjoyed them both for the writing. The books by Eric Sloane are usually enjoyable to read as well if you can get past some of Sloane’s preaching, though they technically aren’t woodworking books. This all still leaves me searching for a book that is not only a great woodworking book, but a great read as well.

When all is said and done, I don’t think that magical book exists. I hate to say or admit this, but here goes: Woodworking media is boring. I’ve never “laughed out loud” or “snorted coffee through my nose” when reading a woodworking book, magazine article, or blog, though I have seen many commenters that have claimed to do those things. I can’t say that my writing is any better; I think I’m funny at times; maybe I am, maybe I’m not. But it’s not my goal to make people double over from laughter while reading my blog. Many woodworking writers for some reason think they have to be funny, and there’s nothing worse than an unfunny person who believes that he’s the funniest guy walking.

If I do have a goal when it comes to writing a blog post, it is to present my opinion in my own voice. I write how I speak, and if this blog is entertaining then that is the reason why, because whatever I may be, I am a colorful guy. It’s my belief that most woodworkers that write about woodworking don’t write in their own voice. I think they try to write like “writers”. But I don’t want to read about woodworking from a writer, I want to read about woodworking from a woodworker, in his or her own voice. Does that mean bad grammar and foul language? Not necessarily. But maybe it does mean some honesty, and at that I mean being true to yourself.

But the real question is: Will I or would I ever write a great woodworking book? I can say in all honesty that it will never happen; I don’t have the talent. It doesn’t bother me, though, because I have a lot of company; nobody else has ever written a great woodworking book, either.

Here Comes the Sun

This coming weekend I am hoping to start a built-in/recessed storage cabinet project I’ve had planned for my garage. I already have the material and the rough dimensions I want to use, but what I don’t really have is an idea for the door. While the cabinet itself is going to be very basic, I do want to put a nice door on it. At the same time, an extremely fancy door on a basic built-in cabinet in a garage would look silly. So my minor dilemma is finding a simple door design that looks a bit more elegant than a slab of plywood, yet at the same time will work in a garage, and to me that equals Shaker.

I’m a big fan of Shaker furniture, though I haven’t made very many pieces. But a Shaker door would work well in my situation because the Shakers were masters of “plain” designs that also happen to look great in just about any setting. So I did a quick internet search of Shaker cabinets and the first one that popped up may be the most popular of all: The Enfield Cabinet.

The Enfield cabinet has probably been built thousands of times, and that is for good reason: it can do a lot. The cabinet works well in a kitchen, a bedroom, a woodshop, or a living room. It is easy to modify yet still maintain the “Enfield” look and shape. It can be stained or painted without loosing it’s appeal. It is fairly easy to build, yet also has a few challenges. I watched an episode of the Woodwright’s Shop where Roy Underhill was working on an Enfield and it is one of my favorite in the series. Hell, even my wife liked it! So in short, I want to build the sucker.

Roy Underhill's Enfield Cabinet

Roy Underhill’s Enfield Cabinet

tear-out-008

Before I go on, I have to add that even though I’m not really a tool hound, in particular for a person that enjoys woodworking, every time I watch Roy Underhill I want to buy one of the tools he is using. The latest woodworking tool on my list is a moving fillister plane. Though I’ve written many times about my love for the table saw, one of the things I hate using it for is making rabbets, but it can do the job. Nearly every episode of the Woodwright’s Shop features Roy using a moving fillister plane, and that is for good reason. E.C. Emmerich offers a model that looks right up my alley, though I will have to come up with the funds to obtain it.

After my research, I’ve decided to pattern my built-in cupboard door after the Shaker Enfield version. Not only do I think it will look nice, but it will be good practice for when I build the real thing. Yet the best part in all of this is the fact that several weeks ago I wrote about finishing my plant stand, and how it finished on a low note, and how I really didn’t want to woodwork during the summer for a myriad of reasons. Now, I’ve found not one, but two projects that I would start tomorrow if I were lucky enough to have that kind of free time. Yet, I don’t think I will break my rule of avoiding woodworking during the two hottest, most humid months of the year, though that doesn’t mean I can’t draw up the plans and get the materials all ready.

Anyway, my spring of woodworking despair has led into a summer of new hope. I have several projects on the horizon that I would love to make, and I actually have a little free money to purchase the material with. Suddenly, I pumped up for some woodworking! The only thing that could top it off is convincing my lovely wife that a moving fillister plane would make a very nice birthday gift for her hard-working husband.

Promised Land

Some of my fondest childhood memories are the times I went to see the Philadelphia Phillies play baseball. There is something magical about watching a professional baseball game at a ball park; it is truly a larger than life experience. Though those magical moments happen less often for adults, they are still there to be found. Sadly, I’ve never had one of those larger than life experiences as a woodworker.

If you are a woodworker, you likely subscribe to a woodworking magazine or two, and possibly even read a woodworking blog written by a genius such as myself. At any given time, there is usually a woodworking show going on somewhere in America, and there is usually a magazine article or a blog written by a person or persons who have attended the show which describes the magical experience they had. Before I had ever attended a woodworking show, I had read those articles and blogs posts, so you can probably imagine that I was pretty excited when I finally got the chance to attend my first woodworking show. When I walked through the doors I was expecting the woodworking equivalent of the first time I entered a professional baseball stadium, instead, I got the equivalent of walking into a woodshop at a retirement home.

I’ve been to a half-dozen or so woodworking shows and events, and they basically all have consisted of four or five groups of old geezers standing around being old. Now, I have nothing against old geezers standing around and being old because that’s basically what old geezers do. But I do have something against false advertising. It turns out that every description of every woodworking show I’ve ever read was pretty much misleading. It also turns out that in general, woodworking shows suck, and they suck a lot. But, while I know that I will never find the woodworking version of the Promised Land, there is one place I like to go, and fortunately I will be going there soon.

Hearne Hardwoods is located just over an hour’s drive from my house. It is one of the largest hardwood dealers in Pennsylvania, and possibly the entire region. Because of my hours at work, I don’t get to go there very often, but I have a few days off from work coming up, and I plan on using one of those mornings to make a trip to Hearne. Simply put, the place is a Mecca of wood selection. If you can’t find what you need there then it doesn’t exist. I plan on dropping a few hundred bucks just because, and hopefully it leads to a nice project or two for the end of the summer.

Before I go I will say this. If you are in the region and you do go to Hearne, don’t expect to walk into Woodworking Disneyland. It’s a lumber yard. Don’t get me wrong, it is a nice facility in a nice setting. In fact, the drive through rural Pennsylvania farm land is just as nice an experience as strolling through the facility. But there is no magic, no choirs singing, and no girls in bikinis. I’ve read descriptions of lumberyards on some woodworking blogs that make them sound like a bachelor party in Las Vegas. Hearne Hardwoods is one of the largest and most respected in the entire country, and it is nothing like any of the fanciful descriptions of other lumberyards I’ve seen. So all in all, in this instance trust my judgment, and not the BS you read in the magazines. There is no woodworking Promised Land. Hallelujah.

A few more reasons why the Metric System sucks.

A few weeks back I posted my feelings on the Metric System. Though I was mostly joking, I had some people agree, and some people disagree. I’ve found that most Metric supporters feel that it is superior to the Imperial System in every way. Whatever. Here is what I do know. Maybe the metric system is superior, but it doesn’t work for everything. Case in point, here are a few instances where the Imperial Mile is used. I will convert it to Metric and you can be the judge.

Let’s start with music. The classic 1983 Plimsouls hit, A Million Miles Away, when converted to Metric becomes, One Million, Six Hundred Nine Thousand Kilometers Away. Maybe I’m wrong, but that really doesn’t have the same ring to it. How about Eminem’s, 8 Mile? In metric it becomes 12.875 Kilometer. Once again, not the same ring.

Okay, so if music isn’t your thing how about movies? The 1999 Tom Hanks film, The Green Mile, which was based on a novel of the same name by Stephen King, becomes The Green 1.609 Kilometer. I don’t know about you, but I feel The Green Mile has a little more dramatic cache. How about Poetry? Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening contains the famous phrase, ‘and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep’ Roughly convert that to Metric and it becomes ‘And Kilometers to go before I sleep, and kilometers to go before I sleep.’ I’m no poet, but the Metric version really doesn’t roll of the tongue in a poetic manner, does it?

I could go on and on but that would be redundant. My point is that maybe mathematically the Metric System makes a little more sense. I’ll give you that. But the Imperials System just sounds better. The Imperial System is cooler. We got the Mile High Club. What do you got?

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