The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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A quick poll

Lately I’ve been struggling to find any free time for woodworking among other things. This is generally my favorite time of year to woodwork, the weather is warm and comfortable, but the heat and humidity of the summer are still weeks away. It left me wondering how many woodworkers in my situation also manage to find time to woodwork. Basically, my schedule is as follows:

Wakeup 5 a.m.
Leave for work 6:15 a.m.
Work 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Return from work 6 p.m.

Like most people I work Monday thru Friday. I also work every other Saturday. Of course, there are the typical things that needed to be done around the house like washing clothes, cleaning, making sure bills are paid, lawn work, etc. I also go to the gym either 3 or 4 nights per week depending on the week. Luckily the gym is just a short distance from my house so that generally takes no more than 90 minutes of my time. Couple all of this with things like having dinner and spending time with my family and it doesn’t add up to a whole lot of free time. At that, I would have to think that my schedule is pretty typical for most people in my age demographic. So my question is: Do other woodworkers struggle to find free time for woodworking as much as I do? I would love that answer to be “yes” just to know that I’m not the only one in that boat.

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Are hand tools holding me back?

Like many new woodworkers who started within the past ten years, I began woodworking using hand tools. My choice of implements had a lot less to do with tradition and a lot more to do with practicality. Don’t misunderstand me, I enjoy the tradition of hand tools and what it stands for, but as many of you heard me say many times before, my garage is just far too small to house a power tool woodworking shop.

Of course I have a table saw and a router, and with a few jigs you can make a lot of things out of wood with just those two tools. But because I don’t really care for routers all that much, the table saw is the only power tool that I use on a regular basis while woodworking. To me, a power-tool-centric woodworking shop needs to have the aforementioned router and table saw, as well as a jointer table, and oscillating sanding station of some type, and most importantly: a band saw. Of course there are other tools I could mention, but those to me are among the most important.

As I said before, I barely have enough room in my garage for what I have now, let alone two or three more stand alone machines; so hand tools are what I work with. Of course I like working with hand tools, and I have my favorites, one of those being the moving fillister plane. Of all the hand planes out there, and there are a plethora of them, the moving fillister for some reason to me looks the most like a woodworking tool (the coffin smoother is a close second). However, my favorite plane also caused me to rethink a few things, and it prompted me to write this post.

My favorite plane

My favorite plane

Today was a rare day for me, as I actually had a few hours to myself this morning to use at my leisure, so I decided to get in a little woodworking. Because I am not starting a new furniture project, I planned on finally finishing my infamous little chisel rack, as well as doing what most hand tool users do during downtime and perform a little PM on a my fillister plane.

Since I’ve had this plane I spent a lot of time with it. The plane has been disassembled, cleaned, flattened, and tuned many times. For its age it is in fantastic shape except in the most important place, the iron. When I received the plane the iron was looking pretty rough, as in whomever owned the plane before me didn’t know a thing about sharpening. And though I managed to get an edge on the iron, I couldn’t get it to hold one. So I did something that I do not like doing and used a power grinder to reshape the bevel.

A clean flllister

A clean fillister

I took my time, reground the bevel, and then went to the sharpening stones to finish the job. Once I got an edge that looked satisfactory, I did a few test fillisters, cleaned and waxed the plane, and called it finished. The iron held up okay, though I will need to hone it again before I put it to use. All in all it took me around an hour, which does not include flattening my water stones after I used them. After that was over I turned my attention to the chisel rack I had made a few weeks ago. The only thing needed to be done on that front was attaching the cleats, coating the rack with linseed oil, and installing it over the bench. I can’t say that rack represents my best work, but it puts my chisels and other hand tools right at eye-level and arms reach where I want them to be.

tool rack installed.

tool rack installed.

Once the rack was installed I got the garage cleaned up, reality set in, and I had places to go and things to do. I spent a shade over two hours woodworking, if what I did today can be considered woodworking. It occurred to me that more than half of the time I spent woodworking was tool maintenance. By its very nature hand tool work requires maintenance of tools, and that can be a real problem for someone like me considering that my current situation will allow me only a few hours per week to spend on woodworking. In other words, days like today will be the norm around here for the foreseeable future. Had I my theoretical small power tool shop in place I could have easily started a new project and made a decent amount of progress in just a few hours. Hand tools are unforgiving in that aspect, because they take time to properly maintain. So I’m wondering if a woodworker like myself, with a very limited timeframe to woodwork, would be better served by switching to power tools? I know that is easier said than done, as I’ve mentioned many times, my garage layout is not power tool friendly.

On the other hand, what else am I doing? At this pace I won’t be building any real furniture any time soon. Maybe a good idea would be to figure out a way to incorporate some power tools into my garage. The bottom line is that I want to make furniture, I miss making furniture, and what I’m doing now isn’t working. And if what I’m doing isn’t working, it’s getting near past the time to try something else.

Sometimes wood just ain’t enough.

After several years of following the world of woodworking through the internet, I’ve noticed that a fair number of woodworkers were/are musicians. I’ve always equated woodworking and music because I was once a musician myself, and it is my belief that the disciplines needed to excel at both fields are similar. Lately, I’ve discovered something similar about my feelings towards both woodworking and music that has actually bothered me.

Roughly 20 years ago I was in a band that would play usually every weekend, an average of 4-6 gigs per month. The anticipation and excitement of setting up the stage with the band equipment, knowing that for the next 4 hours we would be playing music for hundreds of people, was generally offset by the less exciting proposition of breaking all of that equipment down at 4 a.m. with the knowledge that I would be lucky to get 3 hours of sleep. It was a lot of practice and hard work for what was essentially a few fleeting moments of joy. Even worse, music began to feel empty to me.

Most musicians who rise to the level of playing professionally or semi-professionally were born with an ear for music. That could range anywhere from the gift of ‘perfect pitch’ to the basic ability to recognize intervals. Either way, those abilities need to be developed no matter what level of ability you were given at birth. I studied music deeply for many years, to the point where my theoretical knowledge eclipsed my ability to play. I began to listen to music in parts rather than a whole; I began to analyze music rather than enjoy it. To this day, when I listen to a song, I no longer hear a completed piece of music, but a lot of individual instruments, and that to me is sad. So twelve years ago I decided to give up music in order to get married and hopefully start a family.

Now, with woodworking being my hobby, I’m starting to notice a lot of eerily similar parallels. The pleasant thought of spending a few hours in my garage is tempered by the not so pleasant thought of cleaning up afterwards. I often worry more about the parts than I do the whole. Woodworking theory has become more important than building.  I’ve found that woodworking, like music once did, has become a series of fleeting moments that are fun while they last, but nothing more than brief interludes which mean less than they are made out to be. I once thought that our hobbies defined us, and maybe they do to an extent, because I do believe that in some ways our hobbies choose us as much as we choose them. But even if they choose us, I think it is a mistake to let them rule our choices, and our time, because they do not last.
How many Springtime days do we get?

How many days do we get when the sun is shining, the air is warm, and we have nothing else to do but enjoy them? For me that answer is ‘very few’. Moments of fleeting joy, by their very definition, come and go. Yet, a two hour walk in the park with my daughter, her hand in mine, and her subconscious mind knowing that while she is with me her only concern is to enjoy the day, is  far more important to me than any song, tool, or piece of furniture. Those moments, while they are indeed fleeting, as all of our lives are, do not fade, and in fact strengthen with time. As much as I enjoy many aspects of woodworking, I can say with certainty that there will not be a time when I look fondly back on sawing a tenon. And as much as I enjoy furniture, and what it means, it is how that furniture is used, and not it’s shape or grain which gives it relevance. Thirty years from now, God willing, will I look back upon the Spring of 2015 and remember what I made, or not even what I made, but the “process” of making it? Will those “processes”, which woodworkers are told mean so much, mean anything at all? I’m not asking anybody, because I know the answer for me is “no”.

Thirty years from now, will my fondest memories be of a song, or a tool, or of a dovetail joint? Or will they be remembrances of time spent walking hand in hand with my daughter through a sunny park on a perfect day, not caring if the note was perfect, or my tools were sharpened, or my joints crisp? Will a set of tools, and the things I made with them be the memories I choose to carry with me? Or will a father’s love for his daughter, and the memories of the time I chose to spend with her on a perfect Spring day be the enduring legacy of my life? I’m not asking, because I already know the answer.

The Professional

Among the nicer things about writing this blog are the occasional notes I receive by those who tell me that they enjoy my posts. I can honestly say that more than a few people have told me that I should be writing about woodworking professionally. I don’t agree with that assessment, but nonetheless it was flattering to hear. Because I am neither a professional writer nor a professional woodworker I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing about the topic. Obviously I write a blog about woodworking, but it is less about projects and techniques  and rather more about the lunacy I encounter in woodworking magazines and forums.  So that being said, maybe there is a small place for me in the ranks of professional woodworking writers….

Actually, there probably isn’t. While I have no moral opposition to being paid for my posts, I would still not feel comfortable being under any obligation where I know that I may not be able to put forth my best efforts. The real truth is something that I’ve never mentioned on this blog. But believe it or not I have had several offers from some very respectable sources offering to pay me for my services. Up to this point I turned them down graciously with no hard feelings either way. At this juncture in my life I simply don’t have the time to put forth the effort needed to become a “professional writer”. Of course, there is a very small part of me that would love to throw caution to the wind, quit my job, and become a “starving artist”, but that part is far outweighed by the part of me that really doesn’t like starving artists all that much. Still, the offer of some free tools here and there along with a little extra cash was and is tempting. However, though my reputation in the world of woodworking blogging may not be stellar, in the real world I am a pretty respectable person. In order for me to be a good parent, husband, and human being I need to live my life with integrity, and taking money or goods for a job or contract that I may or may not be able to give my best efforts to is not the way to go about it.

For the record, I do not openly solicit myself in any way. In fact, the one and only time I ever submitted an article for consideration was to Popular Woodworking Magazine for an ‘End Grain” piece. Naturally it was shot down in flames like a scud missile. My failure notwithstanding, I am not writing this blog to hone my skills in the hopes that I may be paid to do this one day; I do it because I mostly enjoy it. That doesn’t mean I’m dismissing the option completely. When and if I receive an offer that I find fair and reasonable, I will certainly consider it. Rest assured if that day ever comes I will put forth my best efforts.

 

So for those of you who were kind enough to leave those nice notes I was talking about, I thank you. Not long ago I mentioned on this blog that I am through explaining myself and what I write, and I meant it sincerely. I am making an exception in this case not for the benefit of those who feel the need to criticize rather than enjoy, but for those who thought enough about what I do to take the time to let me know about it. I truly appreciate it, and even more so the fact that you think somebody ought to be paying me. Maybe there will be a day when that happens, but for now I’m just happy to be here.

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