I would like to start this post out on a positive note. I’m not a bad woodworker. Remember this, please.
With very little formal training (and not nearly enough practice) I’ve managed to make some pretty nice furniture in the past five years. In fact, my house has far more of my furniture than it does anything else. I’ve also made my own tools on occasion (among these are several bench style planes, a bow saw, a spoke shave, and shoulder plane) which I feel are quite good, in particular when you consider that these tools are basically all “prototypes”. I’m well versed in the fundamentals of joinery; I’m accomplished at sharpening my edge tools and my saws; and I’ve become fairly good at restoring vintage tools.
So why am I giving you my resume’? Here’s why:
I’ve not been woodworking enough lately for my tastes, for reasons I’ve alluded to in other posts. Much of what I’ve been doing is experimenting with small dovetailed boxes a la Paul Sellers (I’m not saying that he has invented these boxes, just that he did a series of videos on their construction). Over the past few weeks I’ve made 4 or 5 of them using some scrap wood. I’ve messed around with different ornamental features, the dovetail lay out, etc. just for the fun of it for lack of a better phrase. This time I decided to make an actual “real” box using some decent wood that I was actually planning on finishing and using. For the record, last week I came close, but the garbage board I used had a split in it, so I chalked it up to another experiment and decided that from now on all of my boxes would be made with quality lumber. So on Friday during my break at work I went to the local lumber yard and picked out some dimensional Poplar to use.
On Saturday morning I did the initial dovetail lay out. Like most woodworkers who make boxes using dovetail joinery, I used a cabinet makers triangle to mark the front, back, and sides of the box. I also took particular care to make the dovetails as symmetrical as possible rather than just closely eyeballing the lay out. I did this using a combination square and a beautiful set of dividers I picked up at my local antique store for a price that was so low that I won’t even mention it here (I checked out what these dividers were selling for on the internet and they are selling for a minimum of 4 times the cost that I paid for them at the store). So with my dovetails accurately marked, I got to work.
The first thing I noticed was that my dovetail saw felt like it was binding a little. I know it is sharp because I sharpened it myself just a few weeks ago. I checked the set and that seemed fine, so I did something that remarkably I haven’t done in 5 years of woodworking; I waxed the saw plate. The difference was dramatic. Not only did my saw cut much more quickly, I was also far more accurate in my sawing. It probably should have dawned on me to try this years ago, but live and learn ( I do sometimes wax saw blades rather than oiling them if I am cleaning or storing them, however). Anyway, to cut to the chase, I got the joints sawn (tails first of course) and had a very nice fit, easily my best “tails-first” fit to date. In fact, I got a little cocky and decided to see just how symmetrical my joint really was, so I reversed the joint on both ends and happily I had a near perfect fit again. At that point I left it as is and went out to run some errands.
If you look closely you will notice that the cabinet maker’s triangle is reversed. I should have taken a photo of the mistake as well but I’m not a masochist…
Later on the same day I decided to plow the groove for the sliding lid. As some of you may know, a few weeks back I picked up a Record 043 plow plane which I cleaned up and put back to work. The plane works just fine, but my accuracy with it has been hit or miss. So I decided to use my router plane and it’s fence to plow the groove. The good news is that worked just fine, the bad news is something much, much worse.
As I mentioned, before I went out I left the box assembled “backwards”. What I didn’t mention is that before I disassembled the box to check its symmetry I marked the left side of the box interior for the groove, but not the right side. So what do you think I did when I returned? I marked the right side without reorienting the box in the correct position. This left me with one groove on the inside of the box and one on the outside. Rather than thinking, I took the box apart, set up the router plane, and plowed the grooves using the lay out marks. I ended up with two very nice grooves, one on the inside of the box and one on the outside.
The clamping set-up for using the router. Notice the fence attached (apparently a router fence is one of the least used woodworking accessories…
Needless to say I was pretty upset with myself, not only because I was rushing, not only because the mistake was stupid, not only because my hubris led me to attempt something that really didn’t need to be attempted in the first place, but because this box wasn’t just an experiment. I was actually planning on making this one a finished product. I ruined two hours of work because of carelessness, and I ruined a pretty nice little box on top of it. I like to think that I’m a pretty smart guy, but if I was as smart as I think I am I would have plowed out the grooves first, then checked the symmetry of the dovetails. Apparently, I’m not as smart as I think I am.
The good news is I am no longer upset. Thankfully when I was at the lumberyard I picked up enough Poplar to make several boxes. More importantly, I learned from my mistake, and most importantly, I crossed a threshold with sawing dovetails “tails-first”. So this coming weekend I hope to once again have a few free hours for woodworking. I will once again make my dovetail layout as symmetrical as possible, only this time I will not care in the least if they fit together perfectly both ways.
When you’re an amateur woodworker, this, that, or the other thing can easily take precedence over your hobby. That’s life, and not too long ago I finally came to the conclusion that it isn’t worth complaining about, even if complaining is a form of catharsis.
Unfortunately, for my love of woodworking at least, I’ve had very little free time over the past month. The good news is that the weather is breaking and spring is approaching and it just so happens that spring is my favorite time of year to woodwork. The bad news is two-fold. Firstly, on Saturday afternoon I did manage to get in a little woodworking, and all of it was basically wasted time. Last week I cut the pin boards for my ‘Paul Sellers’ dovetailed shoeshine box, which also happened to be the moment my daughter took the ‘Old Guy’ photo of her old man. On Saturday morning I had a bit of free time, so I figured that I could get the pin boards sawn as well as plowing out the groove for the sliding lid. And if all went well, I would have completed the glue-up.
As some of you who read this blog at times may already know, only very recently I’ve begun to saw my dovetails ‘tails-first’ after doing them ‘pins-first’ for five years. I’ve jokingly said that pins-first is superior, but in reality there is very little difference, and it really just comes down to which side of the pencil mark you are sawing. So because Paul Sellers saws his boxes tails first, I’ve been doing the same thing, if for no other reason than to expand my horizons. My first two attempts were disasters, but I’ve finally gotten the hang of it (or so I thought).
To be brief, on Saturday morning I sawed the pins for the back board and got a very nice fit (grudgingly I admit the fit was as nice as any fit I’ve ever had sawn pins first). I then cut the left side pins for the front board, had a great fit, and proceeded to mark the right side. A visitor stopped by, we spoke for 10 minutes or so, I went back to my box, and promptly sawed the pins on the wrong side of the mark, leaving a saw-kerf wide gap. So I ended up with a box with three perfect (near enough) sides and one gappy as hell. I couldn’t live with that, so I had to saw off the tails so I could re-use the board (the pin board is “special” as in smaller and cut a bit differently, so I cannot simply remove the pins or start over-it will be much clearer when I post photos of the completed box). Regardless, I was mad, but mostly at myself for allowing a minor distraction to mess up my work so badly. I’m better than that, but it is what it is as they say.
At that point I gave up for the morning; the wind was out of my sails and I had had enough. There is a school of thought in which a mistake should be addressed immediately, but I’ve found that with woodworking, a step taken back is the way to go (for myself at least). And while my mistake was enough to really frustrate me, Sunday morning was easily the most upsetting portion of the weekend.
As I said earlier, it appears that the weather has finally broken, and we decided that Sunday was a good day to start spring cleaning. To be fair, my wife was cleaning our living room and I was knee deep in my Sunday morning ritual of washing mounds of clothes. As far as my living room is concerned, there is a book case, a plant stand, three end tables, and a television stand all made by yours truly. Being that they are made of wood, they need to be dusted occasionally, and my wife wasn’t too happy about it (not that I blame her). As the cleaning commenced, m wife proceeded to tell me that she really doesn’t care for my furniture because “we don’t need any of it”. Normally I am not a person to back down, but I didn’t say much. I can’t say that the furniture in my living room is perfect or even very good, but I think it looks pretty nice, and it certainly does the job.
I didn’t feel all that great about woodworking after that conversation, and at this point I am seriously considering giving away most of that furniture and just having my wife go to a furniture store to pick out what she likes, which is probably the easiest solution and probably the course of action I am going to take. In the meanwhile, I don’t mind making items such as small boxes, because I can use them in my garage for holding tools, or drill bits, and other miscellaneous items. More importantly, my wife won’t have to look at them. One more upsetting piece of this ugly puzzle is the fact that over the past few months I had been prepping some construction lumber in an experiment to make “fine furniture” from two-by stock. I had mentioned making a night stand for our bedroom and that idea was immediately shot down. Truthfully I didn’t have anything overly specific in mind, and I can always save that wood for if/when the day ever comes when my wife decides that my furniture doesn’t offend her anymore.
Most amateur woodworkers understand that a skilled hobby requires at least some dedication. That dedication requires a price, and the support of your family. It is abundantly clear to me now that I do not have that support, and maybe I never did. I can’t complain, however, because maybe it’s me. Either way, I have to find a way through it.
Every so often life imitates art, or smacks you in the face, or something like that, and this past weekend I had a run-in with a little something I like to call ‘irony’.
Because I had to work on Saturday, and because we celebrated my wife’s birthday on Sunday, I decided that I wasn’t going to woodwork, at least not in earnest. So of course on Sunday evening I actually did attempt to begin my “Paul Sellers” dovetailed shoeshine box. To set the scene, we were planning a trip to the gym, I had about thirty minutes to kill, so I decided that I could at least get the tails sawn and the pins marked. Though I did manage to get that accomplished, that is not why I am writing this post.
Generally, if I am woodworking and performing an operation that I feel needs an “action shot”, I will ask my daughter to take the photo for me. So when this happens my daughter will take dozens of photos that I have to sift through to find the picture I am looking for. Usually the photos are an odd mix of pictures of her, the floor, the ceiling, the window, and occasionally me. The good news is sometimes she captures a candid moment, and on Sunday night she managed to do just that. Before I go on, let me flash back to Friday, when I happened to come across a photo of myself likely taken during the spring of 1991. I was 17 years old then, and thought I was pretty hot shit. I posted that photo on Instagram if for no other reason than as a bit of nostalgia.
Anyway, in one of the dozens of photos my daughter took, there happened to be one of me lining up the cut before the “action” commenced. In that photo I’m hunched over the boards, you can catch the flash of gray in my beard, and you can see that my eyes are straining (in my defense, my garage does not have the best lighting for woodworking). In other words, I look like one of the woodworking show “old geezers” you’ve heard me make fun of in the past. Contrast this with the photo of the young, wrinkle free, thin, beardless, gray-less 17 year old I just posted, and suddenly I don’t feel so young anymore. In fact, I think this is the first photo of myself where I honestly felt that I looked “old”.
For the record, I am 42 years old; I will be 43 this summer. I’m not sure how to define young, old, or middle-aged anymore. I know this, in June it will be 25 years since I graduated from High School. I’m not sure what that makes me, but I know I am no longer a kid, not even close unfortunately. And though I am no longer a kid, that still doesn’t mean I didn’t learn a lesson. And this week I learned to never look at a photo of myself when I was 17 and to compare it to a photo of myself at 42, and that was more important a learning experience than anything in the world of woodworking.
Lighten up, I’m kidding.
I love it when blog posts I’ve written many years ago are rewritten. Absolutely I do. I’m flattered. Really.
When the woodworking “powers that be” make a statement in writing, should it be countered? When that statement defines a philosophy, or is a call to change, etc. should it be questioned? I used to think so, but now I really don’t care enough to bother. I bring this up for one reason, because quite a few people have asked me why I’ve stopped my rants, or put nicely, my “op-ed” blog posts. I told them what I just told you all: I don’t care.
Continually pushing a large boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down over and over again gets tedious after a while, in particular when it really wouldn’t matter so much if I ever did, in fact, make it to the top of that mountain. For good or ill, woodworking (ers) is what it is now. Ranting, or writing satire, or writing “op-ed” posts won’t change that fact simply because most people involved with woodworking forums, blogs, and media prefer it this way. That is fine. The ‘people have spoken’ as they say.
In all of my ranting and raving I’ve had only one real, bona fide contention with the entity of woodworking, and that is the fact that it was once a working class trade and it is now an “upper-class” hobby. That in and of itself is not a bad thing, but now most hobby woodworkers are what I refer to as “professionals”, most of these professionals it seems love to bash the furniture made today (in the sense of furniture made in factories etc.). I’m not saying people don’t have the right to criticize; they certainly do; but in reality they aren’t criticizing the furniture, they are criticizing the people who make it. That part doesn’t sit too well with me. As I’ve said in the past, everybody has the right to criticize, and that includes myself.
Woodworkers in modern cabinet shops use dados, and pocket screws, and biscuit joints because that is what they are told to do, no more, no less. So if somebody out there wants to criticize the manufacturing process I’ll say that I have something of a problem with that, too. It’s pretty easy to bash factories, and production lines, and call them “mindless” or “soul-sucking” or a dozen other insults. I’ll be the first person to tell you that I don’t necessarily work at a job that instills in me a lot of passion. A good part of what I do every day involves sitting at a desk, and tracking parts, and talking to vendors, and a hundred other things that are frankly boring. 7-5, every day, week in, week out, isn’t easy or fun. Yet, while the ins and outs of my job may not leave me beaming with pride every day, I do take a lot of pride in knowing that because I drag my ass out of bed every morning at 5 am and perform a lot of “mindless, soul-sucking nonsense” to the best of my ability, my family has a decent place to live. And though every factory worker, or assembly line employee may not feel that way, I would bet that at least some of them do. Trust me when I say, being a starving artist is easy; being a person that contributes to society by doing the jobs that need doing is not.
I’m guessing that a lot of the hobby woodworkers out there, who happen to be “professionals” at their day jobs, and who happen to be among the group that loves to criticize all of those mind-numbing jobs, likely have never actually performed one of those jobs. It’s pretty easy to criticize something you’ve never done. I, for one, respect anybody who gets out of bed every day and does an honest day’s work. I would never have the audacity to call another person’s job mind-numbing, in particular if I have no real idea of what that job entails. Or to put it another way: I have no desire to be a garbage man, but I sure as hell have a lot of respect for the people who do it day in and day out. I have no way of knowing this, but I am guessing that people who collect garbage for a living aren’t necessarily passionate about their jobs, but they do it nonetheless. If that isn’t commendable I don’t know what is, because in my neighborhood the garbage man is a lot more important than the starving artist. And while a world without art (in its many forms) would not be a nice one, the same too can be said for a world without garbage men.
So when all is said and done, my ranting, and satire, and “op-ed” posts really amounted to nothing. They weren’t going to change anything, they weren’t going to change anybody’s line of thinking, and they made me a lot more enemies than they did friends. So that is why I do not write my little rants anymore. I know that some of you enjoyed them, and I truly appreciate the fact that you did. I just hope that you will enjoy some of the other things I plan on writing about during the upcoming days and months ahead.