The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Old guy.

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”.

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Young guy…

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Old guy…

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.


No hobby for middle-aged men.

I can honestly (and happily) say that nearly every one of my attempts at tool making has been relatively successful. In fact, a few of those tools work quite well. None of them are works of art, or worthy of sale, but they basically get the job done. And maybe that is all we as woodworkers should ask of our tools.

Just this past weekend I completed my first ever bow saw. It is a bit rough around the edges, but so far it seems to work just fine. Five years ago or so I would likely have never even considered making my own tools. Back then, I would have said that we are all better off getting our woodworking implements from those who have dedicated their lives to making them, both past and present makers included. Today, I still agree with that statement, but I also believe that a woodworker who is serious about woodworking should attempt to make a few tools, if for no other reason than gaining a better understanding of how a tool functions.

But before I would recommend that every hobbyist woodworker go out and start making tools, I will start off with a warning. Tool making can be frustrating, in particular for a hobbyist. Because tool making takes time, and dedication, and money, and patience. To use my bow saw as an example, it works fine, and it looks like the traditional bow saws we all see in photos. It also is unrefined.

Now, had I the will, and the time, and the money to a lesser extent, I could dedicate myself to making more of these bow saws. After the tenth I might even be pretty good at it; at twenty I might even be able to sell them; at fifty I might even be called a “bow saw maker”. But fifty is a big number for a married, middle-aged guy with a family. “Fifty” is fifty days, fifty weekends, fifty times I put woodworking ahead of those I love. Fifty sounds like an impossible number to me at this point in my life. And there lies the frustration.

I would never call myself a perfectionist, because I’m not, and in my world “perfectionist” is the code word for “***hole”. But in order to make good tools, or furniture, or just about anything, you may not need to be a perfectionist, but you need to be single-minded. And if you aren’t doing it for a living, and you are a married man or woman with a family, being single-minded is very likely a luxury that you do not possess.

I’ll never be twenty years old again with all of the free time in the world, and unless by some miracle I become rich, I still have twenty years before I can retire and my time becomes my own. So for now I have to live with bow saws that are a bit rough around the edges, and dovetails that have a gap or two. And while woodworking is supposed to be fun and relaxing, and while I may not consider myself a perfectionist, I still don’t care for rough around the edges all that much.


Mele Kalikimaka

Sunday morning for no particular reason I woke up far too early. In the cold, pre-dawn air I made several lame attempts at photographing Venus alongside a crescent moon (I’m neither a photographer nor an astronomer) Happy at the least to see nature’s beauty, and considering that it was barely 4:30 am, I decided that it was a good time to catch-up on Game of Thrones.

When the sun finally rose, I entered my garage to prep some construction lumber in my ongoing experiment to see if I can make nice furniture from “two-by” stock. I did manage to make a few nice boards in a short period of time, and considering it was just “left-over” lumber and not stuff I had hand-picked, I was satisfied with the effort and results.

Afterward, I did a little cleaning, some sharpening, and some tool maintenance, including the flattening of my little wooden block plane. While I was at it, I cleaned and sharpened my moulding planes, and then oiled up all of my chisels. If we were experiencing the same December weather we had last year, I very likely would have wrapped up my chisels in their roll and put them away for the winter. But thus far the weather has been pretty nice. To be truthful, it hasn’t been very cold this year. In fact, just a few days ago I paid my utility bill, and on that bill is a comparison of usage from this year to last, and also the average daily temperature. According to those charts, we are averaging just about 10 degrees warmer per day compared to the same time last year.

I do know this, at this point last year we were experiencing record cold temperatures and we had already had several major snow storms. I was in the middle of a project that I nearly shut down for the winter. This year, our afternoons have stayed relatively mild, and that makes me want to consider starting a new project. I’m not one to follow long term weather forecasts (I’ll save that for when I’m old-God willing), but all of the lovely weather people in the region are calling for a much milder winter than what the past three or four years brought us.

Who gives a damn about the weather? Nobody really, until you’re living through it. Last year we had a stretch where the high temperature didn’t rise above freezing for 6 weeks. We also had even worse stretches where the high temperature never made it past 15 degrees below freezing. In fact, if I remember correctly the first day of Spring brought with it almost a foot of snow. Woodworking in an unheated garage in those conditions is absolutely painful both mentally and physically.

For the first time in years, I’m actually looking forward to woodworking during the winter months. Next month things may change and we might just get hit with another infamous “arctic blast” that froze up the rivers and killed a lot of car batteries. I’m not getting my hopes up, but there is a slim possibility that I will actually make a piece of real furniture this coming winter.

A new use for an old jig.

Tool sharpening is always a ridiculously debated hot topic among woodworkers. Should you do it freehand? Should you use a jig? Machine grinding or stone grinding? Who cares? I’ve discussed my sharpening methods before on this blog: diasharp, water stones, leather strop. I don’t like machine grinding and I generally don’t use a guide or jig. I prefer to hone free hand because I’ve become one of Paul Sellers minions and I blindly follow any and all of his advice. Actually that isn’t true. I still do use a guide for grinding, but I prefer to hone free hand because I just don’t feel like going through the trouble of setting up each individual tool on the guide. It’s faster and easier to just do it without the crutch (did I say ‘crutch’? That really isn’t what I meant) So if any of y’all want to use training wheels that’s completely up to you.

Like most woodworkers I started out using sharpening guides. I have two, a Veritas which I purchased, and a side-clamp “eclipse” style which was given to me. The question is: What do I do with two sharpening guides when I barely have use for one? Well I think I finally came up with an answer: Shaving!

I’ve been shaving for 25 years. I’ve become quite good at it. Still, I understand there may be some people out there who have trouble shaving, and that is where the side-clamp sharpening guide comes in. I’ve done some experimenting and I’ve found that most razors on the market fit in the side clamp guide, and with a little trial and error you can find the perfect angle to set your razor which will provide a perfect shave every time. And ladies, don’t feel left out, it works just as well on legs as it does on faces.

It was a sharpening guide, now it's a shaving guide.

It was a sharpening guide, now it’s a shaving guide.

So for everybody out there with an unused sharpening guide I just helped you find a new use for it. You’re welcome! On a side note, during my experiments it dawned on me that my razors all work on the pull stroke, which instantly classified them as Japanese style razors. Unfortunately I contacted most of the major razor manufacturers and gave them this information which they promptly used to triple their prices. Sorry about that.

Chuck Atlas


A lot of well-meaning woodworkers, bloggers, teachers, and commenters alike, all compare woodworking, in particular with hand tools, to a good workout.

Let me tell you, it’s not. Not even close.

Before I continue let me stress that I am not a personal trainer, or a certified therapist, or an exercise guru. I know how to keep myself in shape (barely), and I know the very basic rules of physical fitness. I can tell you that when it comes strength training, your exercises need to be a combination of resistance, repetition, and isolation. The problem with “woodworking for exercise” is that very rarely does any one hand tool operation meet that criteria.

For instance, rip sawing, which I consider one of the more labor-intensive woodworking tasks, meets one and a half of the three: resistance and repetition. The resistance part is easy to see; repetition-not nearly enough to make a large difference; isolation-once again not nearly enough to make a large difference. Now, if you spent a few hours per day doing nothing but ripping boards you would certainly begin to notice the strength in your shoulder and forearm increasing. Good, right? No, not really. What’s the problem? While I can only speak for myself, I’ve never seen or met anybody who rips boards all day long while switching arms for each board.

Woodworking fails as a workout in nearly every case because woodworkers use their dominant hand/arm almost exclusively, and when they are using both arms there isn’t nearly enough of the “three criteria” to qualify it as a workout under any circumstance. My point being, the woodworking that most of us do doesn’t require enough strength, stamina, and isolation to make it real exercise, and during the rare instances when it does, we are mostly using just one arm to do it. I don’t know about y’all, but I like my body to look as symmetrical as possible. More to the point, I’ll be forthright and admit that I don’t necessarily care how strong I am anymore, I just want to look like I’m strong. I’d much rather be a guy who looks stronger than he is than the guy who “is stronger than he looks”.

As far as cardiovascular exercise woodworking is not even worth mentioning. Unless you are a lumberjack who climbs up and down trees all day it has little cardiovascular benefit. Once again there just isn’t enough motion happening to keep your heart rate steadily elevated and your lungs working. In fact, you could jog in place and woodwork and it wouldn’t make too much of a difference, because unless you are physically in motion (as in moving from one place to another) your brain has trouble equating your motion with exertion, meaning your brain thinks your aren’t going anywhere (which you aren’t) and reacts accordingly to save energy. In other words, your body will only keep you in good enough shape to run in place, not run distance.

To put that in perspective (and this is an experiment I’ve done) Go to a track and run in place hard for ten minutes. The next time you are there, run around the track for ten minutes. Then compare which was more difficult. I can pretty much guarantee you that all things being equal, actually running around the track is much harder.  **I’ll be completely honest and say that I don’t understand the science here, I am only repeating what trainers have told me**

So the bottom line is: Woodworking is hardly for weaklings, but it’s not going to turn you into Lou Ferrigno. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Exercise if you want, or don’t, it’s no matter to me. I’m just saying that if you are substituting your workout with woodworking because it’s “just as good”, you may be doing yourself a disservice.

The Collector

This past weekend my wife and I checked out our new local antique store for the first time. Neither of us are antiquers, but our local store is more of a “working class” establishment rather than a highfalutin destination for yuppies with too much money who like to pretend that they are cultured. And though there obviously were some expensive pieces of furniture among other items, most of the stuff was reasonably priced.

The tool and hardware section had a fair number of old mechanical tools and a pretty good selection of hardware, but not much in the way of woodworking tools. There were some old beading planes in good shape, a few braces, a some hand saws, and a small selection old hammers. I purchased a Hammond cobblers hammer which I felt would be useful (not to mention that it was made in my hometown of Philly), and also to support a local business. When I paid for the hammer I asked the proprietor if she often got woodworking tools in stock. She mentioned that if there was something I was interested in she would be more than willing to seek it out for me, but collectors generally “suck up” tools long before they make it into the store. I know it may not be very magnanimous of me to complain, but that statement bothered me.

I personally don’t know anybody who collects tools as a hobby, be they woodworking tools or something else. My own opinion is that as far as hobbies are concerned, you can do a lot worse than collecting tools. The coffin smoother I just obtained was admittedly purchased more to “have” than to use, though I do plan on using it on occasion. I also know that there is probably a collector or collectors out there who have thirty or more of those coffin smoothers among hundreds of other tools and their duplicates. The possible good part about this “tool hoarding” is these collectors are very likely people who enjoy old tools, and history, and they will do a nice job in preserving these implements. The possible bad news is there are definitely people out there with the time and capital to buy up every old tool they see in order to thin out the market and drive up the price. While I have no way to prove that happens with woodworking tool collectors, I know it happens with other “collecting” hobbies, so at that I am taking an educated guess.

The question is can and should something be done about it? My answer would be “no and no”. Because we live in a Capitalist society with a free market, we cannot keep people from hoarding tools any more than we can keep them from hoarding cans of soup. I’m not trying to knock the free market; like everything else it has its good points and bad. But I can have an opinion, and my opinion is that if you happen to be one of those people who buys up every decent used woodworking tool in order to sell them later at an 800% mark-up you are no better than the people who do the same thing during Christmas with Cabbage Patch Dolls. In other words, you’re a dick.IMG_1180.JPG

Something old.

My family and I spent a long Independence Day weekend at my in-law’s farmhouse in upstate Pennsylvania. The place is remote, as in no internet access, dirt roads, nearest town 25 miles remote. Thankfully I had a kindle to read because the weather wasn’t so nice, but unfortunately there was little to do but read, and woodworking was obviously out of the question. Yet I did make a few discoveries that I felt were interesting.
Firstly, the farm has been in my wife’s family since the end of World War 2, and because it was once a working farm, there are lots of old tools hanging about. I did just a little snooping around my wife’s grandfather’s old workshop and among the assortment found three Disston hand saws-two rip-filed, in excellent condition, a Disston one-man and two-man cross cut saw, about half a dozen braces of various sizes, a chair making scorp, an adze, several draw knives, a few Stanley block planes, an ancient smoother, and a large assortment of files, chisels, bits, hammers and mallets and hatchets, among boxes of old hardware etc. I don’t think my wife’s grandfather was necessarily a woodworker, though I would be sure that he at least dabbled., rather, these tools were used in and around the farm.
Though I have been to the farmhouse many times, this was in actuality the first time I really got an in-depth look at all of the tools at once.  I even considered asking if I could bring a few of the tools home and work on them, but I did not want to overstep my bounds. Though my wife and I have been married for nearly 12 years, and we’ve been together for 16 plus, there are still certain things that you don’t ask your father-in-law, and one of them is to borrow and work on his inherited tools. And though the tools were interesting to look at, perhaps the most interesting thing I found was an issue of Popular Mechanics from 1952.
At first, I thought the issue was a reprint simply because I couldn’t imagine that it would have survived for 60 years. But sure enough, I checked and double-checked, and triple checked and indeed it was an original copy. 1952 was significant in terms of the magazine because it just so happened that this was a 50th anniversary issue, as the magazine began publication in 1902. One article in particular was telling, as it showed an advertisement of woodworking machines available for sale in 1902, and most appeared to be treadle or hand powered. Also, one page showed a list of “Your Grandfather’s Woodworking Tools” which included a wood jack plane, a brace w/bits, some chisels, etc. I took a few photos of the pages, but I stupidly did not take any pictures of the “new” power tools sold to replace the old hand powered ones. I also missed the opportunity to take photos of the advertisements for not only tools, but lots of other items that are no longer readily available.

Plan for a closet banquet cupboard.

Plan for a closet banquet cupboard.


Your grandfather's woodworking tools.

Your grandfather’s woodworking tools.

out with the old...

out with the old…

Craftsmanship gets a "new" face.

Craftsmanship gets a “new” face.

As you can imagine, the magazine was not in the best of shape, and I handled it as little as possible it so as not to destroy it, but what I saw made for some interesting reading. Companies such as Atlas, Millers Falls, Greenlee, Stanley, and Craftsman were well represented in the pages. Interestingly enough, the article concerning the power tools makes the case that those very tools made the hobby of woodworking a possibility for thousands, if not millions of people, in essence stating that power tools created the hobby of woodworking, at least on a large scale. While I do woodwork with handtools far more than I do with power tools, I don’t advocate one method over the other, yet I do agree with that conclusion.

I’ve said before that without the advent of homeowner level power tools,  which many so called hand-tool advocates love to insult and denounce, none of us would be here today talking about how great it is to woodwork with hand tools. There would be no hand tool “renaissance”, because the hobby of woodworking likely wouldn’t exist, at least not how most of us know it, and that is something to think about.

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