Generally, when people find out you are a woodworker, or a handyman, or a tradesperson, etc. eventually they start giving you tools. These tools aren’t always related to your hobby or trade, but they usually assume (with good intentions) that you can use them. Sometimes these tools are in good shape, sometimes they aren’t, and sometimes they aren’t even complete. So while continuing my garage clean out I came across four assorted hammer heads (a mason’s/blacksmith’s hammer, a ball peen hammer, and two standard claw hammers) either without handles or with handles that were broken. Like any good tool hoarder, I also happened to have two handles ready to go, though I have no recollection of actually purchasing them. Considering that I already have several ball peen and claw hammers, and considering that one of the replacement handles was a near perfect fit for the blacksmith’s hammer, or mason’s hammer depending on who you ask. I decided to repair that first.
The repair was much simpler than I thought it would be. I first sawed off the remainder of the damaged handle with a hacksaw, then I used a cold chisel to begin pounding out the rest. After a few strikes, I noticed that the prior owner had installed a short lag screw to the top of hammer likely to keep it from wiggling. I used a crescent wrench to remove the lag. Deciding that there was no more metal to be found, I took a 3/8 brad point bit and ran it through the hole that the lag screw left. Two strikes later and the remainder of the wood popped out.
The replacement handle was a near perfect fit (probably because it was meant for such a hammer in the first place), but I did apply just a touch of paste wax to help it along. Once it was fully seated, I used a 3/4 inch chisel to open up the wedge kerf a bit more, I then pounded in the included wood wedge. Lastly, I seated the metal wedge (which unlike the wooden wedge is installed cross grain ), but rather than hammer it in completely from the top, I flipped the hammer so as not to knock the handle right back out, and used my small anvil to set the wedge. The whole repair took maybe 10 minutes.
The new handle, which is hickory if I didn’t mention it, is the exact length it should be according to the lengths I’ve seen of the hammers that I checked out on line, yet the weight of the hammer feels a bit unbalanced to me. Then again, I’ve never used this type of hammer before, and though I like to consider myself a pretty strong guy, I know that there’s a reason that many blacksmith’s have the forearms of Popeye.
In reality I probably won’t have much use for this hammer other than occasionally. I was just glad to be able to repair it quickly and correctly. The best part of all of this is not my “new” hammer, but the realization of getting the back corner of my garage cleared out for the first time in almost 14 years. I did all of the work in that corner just because I could. I now have full access to my cabinets, a new area for my drill press and grinder, lumber storage, and my sharpening stones are no longer on the floor.
Even better, those of you who read this blog on a somewhat regular basis may recall my having built another woodworking bench that I haven’t assembled yet because of space constraints. I had planned on waiting to reassemble that bench if and when we ever purchase a new house where I can have an actual workshop. And I’ll also freely admit that my current workbench works just fine and has a great deal of sentimental value to me. Well I did some measuring, and with all the new space I may just have enough room for both benches.
When you’re a guy like me, and you woodwork at the back of a one-car garage, space is at an ultimate premium. The battle to remove clutter, create storage, and make the work area “work” is never ending. Generally, I keep my work space fairly clean and organized, yet, whenever I am working on a project, I always seem to notice something else that could be improved. And the past weekend was no exception.
This past Friday my daughter wasn’t feeling well, so I took the day off to stay with her. While she slept, rather than continuing my project, I decided to remedy something that has been bothering me for months.
My garage is “L” shaped, and the “L” section usually contains leftover paint, gardening supplies, and countless other items from countless other projects. Many years ago I built a three tier shelf from leftover “two-by” stock and slowly that shelf became more and more cluttered, no matter how-often I cleaned it. Most recently, my Dutch Tool Chest found its way there, and I decided to finally do something about it.
A few years ago Dutch Tool Chests were all the rage. I personally built two, one for my dad and one that I kept for myself. In fact, one of those chests actually made it to the daily top 3 on Lumberjocks. It was a fun project and contained all of my favorite joinery: dovetails, tongue and groove, mortise and tenon, and dados, as well as decorative cut nails. I enjoyed building it immensely.
I found that I did not enjoy actually using the chest; it always seemed to be in the way, and once I made wall racks for my woodworking tools, the chest became a storage bin for rags and cleaning supplies, the only tool it contained being the head of an old ball peen hammer that I found. Considering that just a few weeks back I purged my wall cabinets of hundreds of magazines, I had plenty of room for those supplies, and considering the chest takes up a lot of space, I made the decision to put it into my attic and cover it with a sheet.
Even though I spent a lot of time on that chest, the decision to put it into storage was surprisingly easy. Just as I said goodbye to the Moxon vise without any regrets, I am now saying goodbye to the Dutch Tool Chest. I am not impugning either project, as I’ve seen many blog posts describing their virtues; they just didn’t work for me. Both were trends in woodworking that I mistakenly followed without doing enough research, and now both are just side notes in my woodworking history. And though I do regret the money I spent on the hardware for the Moxon vise, I do not regret building the Dutch Tool Chest. As I said, it was fun to build and the construction process made me a better woodworker.
The back corner of my garage is now a little more roomy, and a little better suited for my needs. I even took some of the leftover lumber from the shelf and made a quick little workbench to hold my grinder and drill press, two of the power tools I still actually use on occasion. It is a space I can put to good use. In fact, I hope to turn it into a dedicated sharpening station.
In the meanwhile, I did learn a lesson, and that is to avoid woodworking trends. Maybe there was a reason that items like the Moxon Vice and Dutch Tool Chest disappeared for such a long time. For my part, I found out the hard way that they weren’t for me. But then again, I would never have known if I hadn’t tried in the first place.
I may have mentioned in a previous post that my wife and I picked up two pieces of furniture for my daughter, a chest of drawers and a bed-side table, at an antique store a few months back. The antique store is local, local enough to where it’s easy to just drop by a few times per month, and luckily we happened to wander in to see what was new and discovered the pieces there.
Firstly, the furniture isn’t “antique” in the sense that it is ancient. I would estimate both pieces were made roughly 75 years ago. I know that both the dresser and table were made in Pennsylvania because the faded makers mark is still on the back of both, I just cannot make out the name of the manufacturer. It is extremely well made stuff, solid maple casing, dovetailed drawers and case sides (the chest of drawers case sides), all poplar innards. Knowing what I know about furniture, I would estimate that a similar chest of drawers “new” would likely cost around $900-$1000, possibly more, and the table in the $350 range. We paid just around $180 total for both pieces including tax. So why is the price important? The answer to that question needs some background information.
Some time ago I wrote a post which asked the question: If some sort of theoretical disaster were approaching, and you either save the furniture you made or your woodworking tools, which would you save? Firstly, this question was meant to by hypothetical. This wasn’t meant to be a real world scenario and I wasn’t interested in the logistics of saving both.
What it all boiled down to is: Are your tools more important to you or is the furniture you build with those tools the most important thing? There was no lesson to be learned, I just wanted opinions.
Of the dozen or so people who commented, to a man they all said they would save their tools over their built furniture. And I felt the same way.
I wrote that post a few years ago, and my views regarding the subject haven’t changed too much. And in fact, I can confirm that many people share the same sentiment, because often times when entering a place such as a flea market, or antique store, vintage tools often cost more than vintage/antique furniture, even tools that look like hell compared to furniture that looks great. Of course there are exceptions, and certain pieces of furniture sell for large sums. But, more often than not, even “valuable” furniture sells at auctions for pennies on the dollar. Why?
Here is something I’ve discovered in the time since I first began to woodwork: most furniture is worthless. I don’t care if it was handcrafted, or machine made, or a little of both. I’ve found (though this is hardly a new idea) that furniture often becomes a burden to the owners, and worse than a burden to the people who inherit it. To put that in perspective, the two pieces of well-made furniture we purchased for my daughter were likely once part of a bedroom set, and the original owner, I would think, was probably proud to have them in his/her house. They were likely sold as a ‘lot’ at an estate auction or some such sale after the owners died, or sold their house, or whatever the case may be. Less than 100 years later, within a lifetime if you will, they ended up at the back of a dinky little antique store, priced to sell so the store could make room for more stuff. They were essentially given away even though their ‘intrinsic’ value was theoretically more than double the cost that I paid for them, and many times more than the dealer paid.
As I said, there are high-end antique stores that sell both expensive furniture and tools. I’m not denying that. But well-made, “middle class” furniture costs next to nothing on the pre-owned market. And I’m not referring to mass market stuff, I’m not bringing up IKEA or places like that. I’m talking about the very good quality furniture that the average person had in his or her home 75-100 years ago. While not claiming to be a furniture expert, I know more than enough to recognize a well-constructed piece of furniture, and the stuff I’ve been coming across is extremely well made, and it is selling for “cheap”.
Here is the sobering news: This isn’t a market anomaly. I’ve been in dozens of antique stores and in general you can get good quality furniture without spending much, and at auctions it can get even more crazy. And all of this makes me wonder, wonder about what I do with my time and what woodworking means to me.
For the record, I don’t make furniture to sell it, or in the hopes that it will one day become valuable in a monetary sense. But it dawned on me that there is a chance that some of the furniture I made may end up having a dollar value placed on it, not so much because it will be sold, but because that “dollar value” may decide if it is worth keeping. Or it could very well end up at an auction or an estate sale of some kind. It most likely won’t sell for much, if anything at all. Don’t misunderstand me; I make my furniture as well as I can using sound, time-tested methods. But that really doesn’t mean much with the realization that much of the furniture I have built or will build in the future will probably end up in the garbage.
The standard response I will probably get is: “Then strive to build stuff that won’t get tossed aside!!” My reply is that I already try. I can also point out that the vaunted furniture makers of yesteryear, the fellows who made some of the best furniture ever produced; the fellows that the experts tell us are far, far better than we could ever hope to be, built a lot of stuff that ended up in the garbage too, not because it was garbage, but it became garbage nonetheless.
In conclusion, I guess what I am trying to get at is the whole “make stuff that will outlast you” is all nonsense, because it will not. It is rare to find furniture more than 200 years old. Most furniture 300 years old or more is in a museum, and in some cases not just because it was well-made furniture, but because it belonged to somebody of historical importance. The stuff older than 400 years is relatively non-existent.
I know I’m going to get some responses pointing out “all of the antique furniture” that is still out there. Yeah, there is still a lot of antique furniture, a boat load of it, tons, but it is a miniscule amount when comparing it to all of the furniture made at the same time that no longer exists, or still does exist in the back of somebody’s storage basement. And all of the stuff that is still out there is worth little in a monetary sense when it really comes down to it. And here again, I am not trying to put a cash value on what I make, I’m trying to say that just because one of my grandkids may one day have a table I made sitting under a sheet in his or her attic doesn’t mean that I built a piece of furniture that “outlasted me”.
Furniture, like most things, is perishable. It is a fleeting object made by those doomed to die and fade into obscurity. Rest assured, I’m not preaching doom and gloom. I’m saying that working under the pretense of “it outlasting me” may be a losing proposition. I’m not advocating slapping together garbage out of wood and calling it furniture, but I am advocating the end of the high and mighty notion that our furniture is oh so important in the grand scheme of things.
Build furniture; build it the best way you know how, and most importantly have fun, but sooner, or later, nearly everything we make, no matter how lovely or well-made it may be, will likely end up being sold at a yard sale, or covered in dust in somebody’s attic, or gracing the bottom of a land fill. And that is a very sobering thought.