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Support your not-so-local woodworker

I have a soft spot in my hard heart for the local restaurant. Maybe it’s because I like to support local businesses; maybe it’s because local restaurants hire local employees; maybe it’s because I have some understanding of the difficulties of operating a small business, or maybe I just like the fact that I can get an inexpensive meal and a decent cup of coffee at a place within walking distance. Whatever the case may be, I support local restaurants, and local businesses in general, whenever possible.

 As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, I don’t live in an area with a local, or even semi-local dedicated woodworking store. Maybe you would say that I whined about it, but I’m not here to argue semantics. So supporting a true local woodworking business is not really an option for me (though there are some antique stores close by that at times will have a few woodworking tools). Rather, I do my best to support woodworking related companies which I feel do a nice job.

The other day (on Twitter) I saw that Lost Art Press announced the pre-sale of: The Woodworker: The Charles H. Hayward Years. I pre-purchased volume one: Tools on the LAP web page. If you don’t know who Hayward is I cannot really help you very much, because I know very little about him myself. I know that he wrote and illustrated woodworking articles for many years starting early in the 20
th
century. I’ve read just a handful of his work, and that was whenever Popular Woodworking would post one of his pieces on their blog from time to time. Though I’m sure there will be some very good information in this book, it probably isn’t a book I really need to have. So why did I purchase it? The answer is two-fold.

Firstly, I consider this book both a woodworking book and a historical reference. I’m a real sucker for history books. I’ve never counted, but I probably have 50 plus books at home just on the American Revolution. I have volumes of the letters, articles, and writings of such people as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, etc. I’m also partial to biographies, tactical information, and the politics of the era, which I find most interesting of all. In fact, I even like to consider myself a bit of an expert on the subject. Now that I’ve tooted my own horn, I’ll just say that if you enjoy historical non-fiction you would probably enjoy my little library. And the Hayward book is a book I would like to have in that library.

Secondly, I like what Lost Art Press does, and if I see a book they are offering that I think may be interesting to me I will usually order it if I have the extra funds. Supporting small businesses is important to me, I work for a small business myself, and considering that I like woodworking, supporting a small woodworking business is even more important.

I’ve said before that I do not subscribe to any professional woodworking blogs (at least I don’t think I do). The only pro blogs I read are the Popular Woodworking editor’s blog (mostly for the chance to interact with the incomparable Graham Haydon), and from time to time, the Lost Art Press blog. I would in fact like to do a bit more reading of the LAP blog but I often just don’t get around to it. My support isn’t going to make or break any given company one way or the other, but I like to do what I can, because at the end of the day, many of these small companies are taking a big chance, in particular companies that specialize in woodworking.

It’s easy for me to sit here and say that a tool company, or a publishing company, should do this, that or the other. It’s easy to spend other people’s money for them. Rest assured, when I do that, it is with the best of intentions. As I’ve mentioned numerous times, I work for a small company, and I do know a little about the trials and tribulations of running a small business. I can only tell you that it is not easy, and takes a lot of hard work and effort. So when I get the chance to put my money where my mouth is, I make it a point to do just that. On that token, I’m not advocating or shilling for anybody. It’s your hard-earned money, not mine, so by all means do whatever you would like with it. I simply like to think if you are a regular reader of this blog, you will likely enjoy what I enjoy, so I don’t mind making a recommendation, from time to time.

 

Mouldings in Practice

For the past six months or so I’ve been exploring the use of traditional wood moulding and joinery planes. I hate to use the word “traditional” because I’m not really  a traditionalist, but being that these tools are often described with the word, I will do the same. In any event, I use these tools not necessarily for traditions sake, but because I have very little room for larger equipment. I would love to have a giant SawStop cabinet saw sitting smack-dab in the center of a dedicated workshop; I don’t. When I needed to accurately make a couple of dados or ‘fillisters’, my best choice was to back my wife’s car out of the garage, roll the table saw out, attach the dado stack (or what have you) and make the cuts. If I were making twelve grooves or dados for a cabinet or bookcase I would have no issue in going through the set-up, but if I need to make just one or two joints it makes much more sense to do it with a hand plane. To put it another way: I just got tired of going through a bunch of nonsense to accomplish something that could be done much more simply. Now, I use a moving fillister plane whenever applicable.

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Once I purchased a moving fillister and began to incorporate into my furniture making, I began to explore the use of other “traditional” planes, beading planes to be precise. Because I don’t really enjoy using electric routers and never have, moulding planes were the logical next step. Yesterday, I received my first set of hollow and round planes, #10’s actually.  I’ve even started to take the first steps of constructing my own small set, which is a real possibility. I like the idea that with hollow and round planes, and some practice, I can theoretically make many different mouldings. And because I have very little practical knowledge of these planes, I ordered ‘Mouldings in Practice’ by Matt Bickford. The book arrived on Tuesday, and last night I finished reading it.

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Just as the title suggests, the book is a practical guide for using moulding planes, in particular hollows and rounds, to make many different profiles. The book is surprisingly fast to read; I finished it basically in one sitting. The step by step drawings are clear and color-coded to illustrate Bickford’s step by step process of creating different profiles, consisting of a series of rabbets and corresponding hollows and rounds. Using the drawings as lay-out tools, you could probably use machinery to create a fair portion of the mouldings as well, though to my mind it would actually be more difficult than using hand planes, but it should be possible. Of course, the book has a chapter on sharpening and maintenance which is well done. However, as far as sharpening is concerned, I stopped worrying about it and conversely improved immensely. In fact, I don’t want to read another article or book about sharpening ever again.

One thing that Bickford points out, and one thing that I had suspected from the get-go is that most woodworkers do not need a full-set, or even a half-set of hollows and rounds. In general, the majority of woodworkers can make a vast amount of profiles with just a set of #6 and #10 planes(as well as a rabbet plane). That is a good thing, because a new half-set of hollows and rounds costs a small fortune, and a decent vintage set isn’t cheap, either. Surprisingly, Bickford is not too keen on the purchasing and refurbishing of vintage planes; his theory being that the time spent rehabbing these planes, which often need a lot of work, could be spent making new ones, and that someone new to moulding planes can spend a lot of time and money trying to repair old tools that maybe are irreparable.  I can agree with that to an extent, but it does lead back to my argument concerning the need for mass produced tools, but that is (was) another blog.

One place where we differ, and maybe where I differ with a lot of woodworkers, is the “level of tuning” that wood planes need. Bickford states that vintage planes need to be tuned to an extremely high level in order to perform properly, to the point that it led him to stop even trying and build his own. Though I can understand his want to make his own tools, I disagree that wood planes need massive tune-ups to work. I’m not saying that a plane shouldn’t be tuned to a high level, but I am saying that you shouldn’t purchase a 200 year old plane and expect it to work “like new”. These planes are going to have dings, minor variances, etc. I feel that as long as you get the iron sharp and the soles reasonably clean and shaped then that is enough for woodworking. I have a strong feeling that old-time woodworkers didn’t keep their tools insanely tuned, rather, I think they were very familiar with their tools and used them accordingly, understanding that some of their planes were not perfectly profiled; a sharp iron fixes a lot of minor problems, and it’s my guess that these guys simply kept their tools very sharp.

While I don’t necessarily use hand tools in order to “be unplugged” or to keep machines from taking the “soul” out of my work, I have heard, meaning read, many woodworkers say that they do. I do like hand tools because they offer a different, not necessarily better, level of control that power tools do. “A plane is just a jig for a chisel.” That is a favorite phrase of some hand tool woodworkers. If that is the case, and you are tuning that “jig” to a machine-like level of tolerance often times using machines to do it, aren’t you really just using a power tool in a different capacity? If you are, that is fine with me, but I think you lose the right to preach if you do it. That being said, I don’t believe that Bickford is preaching; I’m just making a general statement.

If I have just one minor quibble with the book it would be with the black and white photos. While this book isn’t photocentric, it does include some pictures of moulding planes in use, as well as furniture to illustrate some of the complex mouldings made with planes. I have nothing against black and white photographs, but I think that color photographs would have shown more detail. To take it a step further, I believe that sketches of the planes, furniture, and completed mouldings, a la Eric Sloane, may have worked even better. Even so, my complaint is very minor, and does not detract from the book in any way.

While I can’t say that every woodworker will enjoy this book, I highly recommend it to those interested in using moulding planes. It is hard for me to say if woodworkers everywhere would be interested in this topic as esoteric as moulding planes; this book is about as niche as it gets, then again, woodworking in general seems to be a niche topic. I do believe that this book could be beneficial to woodworkers looking to expand their knowledge of furniture construction, even if they never plan to pick up a moulding plane. But that is strictly an opinion. I can honestly say that even if I never decided to pick up a moulding plane I would still have been happy to have purchased and read this book. Why? Because I believe that reading it made me a better and more knowledgeable woodworker, and that’s about all I can ask a woodworking book to do.

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.

On Anarchy and book reviews.

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In my blog post yesterday I had touched on a comment that was made concerning a book review I wrote on Amazon about The Anarchists Tool Chest. My contention was/is that Anarchism and Capitalism do not necessarily coexist well together. The commenter had mentioned that Anarchy and Capitalism do in fact work quite well together (something I don’t believe one bit) and that we here in America refer to it as Libertarianism. Truthfully, the last time I truly considered Libertarianism and what makes it tick was more than twenty years ago in a history class during my first year of college. As I said yesterday, I replied to his comment and when I got a free moment last night I did a little research on “free-market anarchy” or “Anarcho Capitalism” as it is referred to by people who like to use ten-cent words. All in all, I was surprised, in a good way, with what I discovered.

Anybody who knows a little about Anarchy as a political system knows that it advocates the elimination of centralized government. Rather, an anarchist would essentially govern himself and a anarchic free-market system would regulate itself, which in turn would theoretically eliminate price gouging, graft, and so on. I’ve always contended that this system would not work for several reasons, with one big reason being human nature. But let’s just say that we have an ideal situation with every person being a law abiding, hard-working, and intelligent member of society, this would still not account for the driving force behind any economy-commodities (i.e. food, building material, fuel).

For example, in our own perfect little society-let’s say for arguments sake the size of a small town- we have a hard working populace with a balanced system of craftsman, farmers, medical personnel, etc. All services offered, as well as the goods being made or grown, are bought and sold at a fair market value and things like inflation are non-existent. Let’s also say that in our ideal world all of the members of the workforce are equally skilled, therefore not one tool, wagon wheel, or grown beet is worth more than another. What happens for instance if the beet crop is bad one year, suddenly the value of beets becomes greater and therefore the cost goes up because the cost is not regulated by a central governing body? If in our so-called balanced free-market system the cost of a commodity such as beets increases, how then would they be paid for when something such as profit is not really part of your economy? Would the bartering system work? Maybe, but because the value of beets increased, that would mean the value of bartered goods normally used to exchange for them would in turn decrease. For example, if the cost of five pounds of beets in barter was five candles during a normal season, and suddenly the cost increased to ten candles because of the scarcity of the product, what would we have? Inflation.

Generally, when one commodity cost increases the cost of other commodities will rise in order to gain more capital. When the cost of commodities increase, so too do the cost of non-commodity items such as tools, vehicles, housing etc. Suddenly, an unregulated free-market system goes out of control, as the people who control the commodities must charge more and more for their goods. The same too can be said when the value of commodities decrease. This all leads directly to over-inflation and even worse, crime.

What I just offered was a very simplistic view of “free market anarchy”. Now, I will freely admit that I am not an educated economist. But it does not take an educated economist to see the failures of the system, because it has happened continually throughout recorded history and continues to happen to this day. While this may simply come off as anarchy bashing, trust me it’s not. In fact, don’t take my word for it. Several prominent anarchists both past and present have said what I’ve said many times: Anarchy and the free market(Capitalism) do not mix. As I said, an unregulated free market system cannot exist, they just don’t work, and Anarchy cannot exist within a regulated system. There are many articles on the internet that seem to confirm my believe, including a pretty good one on Wikipedia.

So what does all of this have to do with woodworking? Not a blessed thing! That’s what I’ve been trying to say! Woodworking and anarchy have nothing to do with each other. Yet I’ve had people tell me that they do; I’ve had people tell me to ignore the word “anarchy” from The Anarchists Tool Chest. How? It’s in the freaking title, and several chapters of the book are dedicated to anarchy and how it supposedly correlates with woodworking. The fact of the matter is that hobby woodworking could not exist without mass production, both of the tools and the furniture. If the free market system of capitalism broke down, where would the average person get tools, wood, nails, glue, or even furniture for that matter, for even the most dedicated woodworker surely cannot furnish his entire home with his own creations. A true anarchist woodworker would never support mass production, or in reality any type of free-market capitalism, otherwise he would be going against his own philosophy. But a real world hobbyist woodworker needs the free market to practice his hobby. Of course, there are individual exceptions with this, but on the large scale it is not feasible.

But I’m taking the phrase “anarchy woodworking” too literally, you say? No, I’m not. The book itself tells us as woodworkers to eschew mass production, to make tools rather than purchase new, or to purchase from individuals rather than companies. That is certainly a form of anarchy, if I’m not mistaken.

But the anarchy of the book really only relates to woodworking, you say, not to everyday life! C’mon now. How you can you live part of your life like an anarchist and the rest like a consumer? That’s like calling yourself a vegetarian only on the days you don’t eat meat. In theory I guess you could advocate calling yourself an anarchist only when you woodwork; who am I to judge? But I personally think it doesn’t add up.

Here’s the deal, once again, for everybody who thinks I’ve “bashed” the book; I honestly really enjoyed it. When I wrote a review of the book on Amazon I felt the need to be upfront on exactly what I liked and disliked; in other words, I tried to provide an honest and insightful review of the book. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that maybe my review wasn’t all that insightful; that is for others to judge. But whatever the review may be it is hardly mean spirited, not even close. I would even go as far to say that if you haven’t read the book, and your are somewhat intrigued by what I am talking about, then by all means I would recommend you go and purchase the book and read it for yourself, maybe you will agree with me and maybe you won’t.

Lastly, I have nothing against a person or persons disagreeing with my opinion; I only object when they feel that I have some ulterior motive behind those opinions. The great part about open debate is that it allows us all freedom to agree to disagree without it coming to anger, or childish implications. I like to think that the author of the book himself would feel the same way. Like I said, if you haven’t read the book and your are intrigued by what I’ve written about it, I highly recommend going over to the Lost Art Press site (there is a link right on my blog home page) and purchasing the book. At worst, you are getting a nice looking book that has a good tool selection list as well as plans for a tool chest. Whether or not you agree with the philosophy, the book is worth it’s cost for those reasons alone. It’s funny, but who would have thought that Anarchy was so controversial?

Woodworking Books

I spent the past ten minutes defending my position on “anarchy” to a commenter that didn’t happen to agree with what I had to say on a book review. Don’t get me wrong, the comment wasn’t mean spirited or condescending, at least I don’t think it was, but rather it was just a simple disagreement. I put some thought in my answer, as it was obvious that the commenter took time out of his day to read my review of The Anarchists Tool Chest and write a response to it. I felt that I owed it to him (or her) to reply with some thoughtfulness.

Anyway, the real reason I noticed the comment was because I happened to be checking out ‘Campaign Furniture’ from Lost Art Press and considering whether or not I should purchase it. I was hoping to find a review or two of the book just to see what they had to say. I generally don’t put a lot of stock into book reviews because books are so subjective; ten people can all read the same book and will offer ten different opinions on it. However, because woodworking is a much more specific/polarizing topic, I find that woodworking book reviews can sometimes be helpful if you happen to find that right person/people to objectively write them. In my brief search I didn’t come up with anything, but that may not matter all that much for the time being.

The truth is that I’m a sucker for woodworking books; good, bad, or indifferent. I generally like them all, even the books that I hate, because most of them give me ideas in some way, shape, or form. I’ve purchased four books from Lost Art Press and I’ve mostly enjoyed each of them. Furthermore. I really like the actual books themselves, which are well made and happen to look nice sitting on a book shelf. At the same time, like many of the woodworking Anarchists of the world are supposedly doing, I too am trying to eliminate my credit card bills. I’m not doing it because I’m on some crusade, but because like most people I would like to be debt free at some point in my life. Though the book isn’t what I would call expensive, it would mean using a credit card to purchase it. Even with the siren song of ‘free shipping’ luring me to purchase (and I’m a sucker for free shipping-a contentious subject among the Anarchist heirarchy), I may just have to hold out until my credit card is paid in full, which probably won’t be until the end of the summer.

Either way I’m still on the fence. I don’t have strong feelings on campaign style furniture one way or another. I don’t plan on making any in the near future, if for any other reason than I can’t afford the woods to make it with. For me, I’m much more interested in the campaigns that the furniture happened to go on. Still, it is a woodworking book, and from what I can tell it’s a nice looking one, both inside and out. As much as people have somehow come to the conclusion that I am at odds with Christopher Schwarz (I’m not), if I am purchasing a woodworking book I would like it to be from his company, as I know that I am least getting a well made product. So I might bite the bullet and order the sucker, or maybe I’ll just rent Ghandi.

Reading is Fundamental

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At long last I picked up some of the stock for my next project: a storage chest. I picked up the material for the legs and part of the stock for the case sides. At the lumberyard, I inquired about some wide planks, sixteen to twenty inches, and I was told that they didn’t have any in stock, but that I would get a phone call if some became available. Because I am neither a professional woodworker or carpenter, I don’t have dealings with a lumberyard on a regular basis, so I’m not sure if that phone call will ever come. In any event, they did have twenty-inch wide edge glued panels in stock, and because this chest is somewhat of an experiment, that is what I purchased. The stuff is nice and flat, and also clear. I’m not sure how well it would stain, however. My wife believes that I should wait until it’s completed to decide on the finish. That may be a good idea, but I’m not too keen on staining an edge glued panel, clear or no. I have an idea that the grain patterns will be muddled, though maybe gel stain could correct that problem at least somewhat.

In other news, along with just finishing up Salem’s Lot, I’ve been reading through two woodworking books that I recently purchased from Amazon: Making & Mastering Wood Planes by David Finck, and Tool-Making Projects for Joinery and Woodworking by Steve A Olesin. Though I’m not sold on making my own tools (as an amateur woodworker) just yet, the topic has intrigued me somewhat, especially the making of wood planes. Thus far, I’ve completed three wood planes; two were from kits and one I made from scratch. I’ve found out a few things during those projects: I enjoyed making the planes; a decent woodworker can make a serviceable plane at home, and making a truly world class plane is not easy. The last one bothered me for a moment or two, but then I realized that as long as the plane works then it really doesn’t matter all that much. Of course I would love to be able to make a plane/work of art or two. But at the moment I don’t have the tools or the time to dedicate to it, not to mention the fact that there is quite a bit of furniture that I would like to make in the meanwhile. Still, a shoulder plane featured in the book by Steve Olesin really caught my eye, and I can see myself making an attempt at it once my first chest project is finished.

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While we’re on the subject of books, I’ve said before that I’ve yet to read a woodworking book that really blew me away. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no such book. While I do enjoy reading woodworking books the majority of the time, I know that like in music, theory can only take you so far. That being said, much of what I do know about woodworking I first learned by reading a book or two. It is good practice, especially for a guy like me who only gets to woodwork a few times a month. I’ve considered two books for future purchase, both from Lost Art Press: By Hand & Eye, which is a furniture design book, and To Make as Perfectly as Possible, which is a translation of the 18th century masterwork by famed French woodworker, Andre Roubo. A book on design sounds interesting because I prefer to design my own furniture, or at least take tried and true designs and make them my own. The Roubo book I’m still not really sold on, at least as a woodworking book. I’m sure that there is good information in it, but for me it would serve more as a history text than an instructional one. In any event, the Lost Art Press books are such good quality/nice looking books that it is difficult not to purchase them just for that reason alone.

So I am still in the hunt for a paradigm altering woodworking text, though like I said, I really don’t believe that one exists. In my opinion, woodworking is finite mathematics, and the toughest equations have already been solved, and more importantly those equations cannot and need not be altered any further. That is why I believe that the classic furniture styles: Queen Anne, Federal, Shaker, and Arts and Crafts among others, have endured for such a long time; they don’t need any changing. Of course there is modern furniture, or contemporary as it is sometimes known. Well I don’t care for contemporary furniture, not even a little. I’ve seen wood furniture made to resemble rubber, or plastic, or built into shapes that bring to mind lego blocks. I cannot wrap my mind around taking the natural beauty of wood, which most woodworkers are trying to highlight, and trying to make it look like something else. That in a nutshell is why I believe that there aren’t any woodworking classics waiting to be written; they already have been!

I purchase woodworking books as reference points, and hopefully to pick up a trick or two, but I’ve found that really and truly learning to become a better woodworker only begins in the books. Trying to copy the old styles has been a key for me. Just like making a plane has helped me understand how they really work, trying to make Arts & Crafts furniture designs of my own has helped me become a better furniture maker. The A & C style came to it’s pinnacle probably a century ago, and that is all I really need to know. That book has already been written, I just need to keep on reading it.

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