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.


Why I didn’t woodwork over the weekend.

I had a rare three day weekend occurrence because of the President’s Day Holiday, yet I didn’t enter my garage one time. Why? Well normally a three-day weekend is a great opportunity to get in some woodworking without shirking my other responsibilities. That extra twenty-four hours can go a long way. But most of you in the western world also know that Valentine’s Day was this past Sunday.

For those of you who don’t know what Valentine’s Day is, it is a day to celebrate your relationship with your significant other. For most men, it means buying flowers, candy, and cards with loving poem’s written by some person you’ve never met to give to the love of your life. For most women, it means accepting those gifts and pretending that they really didn’t want them all with the not so subtle unspoken threat of swift retribution if they did not receive those gifts.

So I did not woodwork this past weekend. I love that woman, damnit. And I would never dare insult her by spending Valentine’s Day in my garage.

On another note. The past three days just so happened to be the coldest of the year. The high temperature yesterday was just around 20 degrees (-6 or so for all of you Celsius users) The temperature when I woke up on Valentine’s Day morning was -2 (-18 C). Some of you may remember that my garage is not climate controlled, and when it’s -2 outside it really isn’t very comfortable inside either. But for anybody to suggest that the only reason I didn’t woodwork this past weekend was because of the frigid temperatures you would be wrong! For anybody to say that I only refused to enter my garage because I didn’t want to freeze my ass off, and not because it was my wife’s special day is just awful. Get your heads out of the gutter!

So what if I never woodwork when it’s freezing outside! That has nothing to do with anything! Just because I had several projects all ready to go it doesn’t mean that the only thing that derailed them was the weather. I would never disrespect my wife that way! Would I?

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.


We had an epic thunderstorm roll in this afternoon. I was glad for it because I enjoy thunderstorms and how they let the world know that Mother Nature is still in charge. But the thunderstorm also cooled off the oppressive heat we’ve been experiencing lately. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining about the heat, in particular after the winter we just had, but I don’t enjoy woodworking when the heat becomes stifling. In any event, I wandered into the garage, opened the door to let the cool air enter, and continued to sharpen up some of my co-worker’s (friend?) chisels.

I generally sharpen on my workbench because I don’t have room for a dedicated sharpening station. I don’t recommend using your workbench to sharpen, in particular if you are using water stones, because no matter how carefully you work water and stone sludge will manage to get onto your bench top. Tonight was no exception, and my bench top did get a little damp.

As the sharpening session drew to a close I flattened my water stones, put them back in a fresh bath of water, and removed the tools from my workbench top to clean it off. I’ve been toying around with the idea of making a new workbench, and with the news that I can get a very nice butcher block style slab for a very nice price, the new bench idea has been on my mind a lot lately. Still, I decided to plane the top of the bench down just to level it and clean it up a bit. I used a shop vac to suck up as much of the dust that I could, then I got to planing, first using the jointer plane to flatten and then the smoothing plane to clean it up.

It took just a few minutes, and when I was finished I noticed that the bench still looked pretty good. I placed a two foot spirit-level on the bench just for a moment and noticed that the bench was still perfectly level. I built the bench almost five years ago when I first began to woodwork seriously, and I must admit it has held up pretty nicely. When I built the bench I followed no plans, rather, I took suggestions from a few books and woodworking articles I had read and built what I felt was right. I changed the configuration of the bench top several times, added a tool tray, toyed with several vices, and most recently added a sliding board jack. I can honestly say that this bench, my first bench, has looked and functioned as a real woodworking bench should all along. And to think I was ready to abandon it.

As I placed the tools on the newly planed bench top I noticed how pleasing they looked laying on the workbench in a way that at a glance seemed haphazard, but in reality was nearly perfect. I gazed at the enormous pile of boards that had become the rock my woodworking is based upon. Five years it had taken me to finally understand what that bench represents. What stubbornness, what hubris had led me to nearly exile this wonderful tool? Two iced-tea scented tears trickled from my eyes, but it was alright; everything was alright. The struggle was finished. I loved my workbench.



The following blog entry may contain material and opinions that some consider offensive. If you do not enjoy strong opinions; if you do not wish to read any opinion but your own; if you feel it is acceptable to disagree with another person’s opinion but get angry when people disagree with yours; if you are a strong practitioner of hero worship; if you have trouble with the concept of ‘sarcasm’; if you have trouble with the concept of ‘artistic license’, if you believe everything you read; if you feel that any deviation from the norm is some sort of character flaw; if you feel that a disagreement is disrespectful; if you enjoy when other people do the thinking for you; if you cannot understand the difference between an ideological disagreement  and an insult; if you feel that it is impossible to respectfully disagree with another; if you believe that being a talented woodworker automatically makes a person’s opinion indisputable; if you are a zealot; if you are an elitist; if you take everything seriously; if subtle humor is lost on you; if I say “tomato” and you say “toe mah toe”, then you will likely not enjoy this particular blog. Thankfully, there are many other woodworking blogs out there written by talented woodworkers and writers. I would highly recommend seeking out one or more of those blogs for your reading enjoyment. Thank you for understanding.


Sincerely and Respectfully

Bill L

I hate IKEA!

We have a book problem at my house. It would be easy to point the finger at my daughter’s collection, which numbers in the hundreds, but it also wouldn’t be fair. My wife likes to read, and so do I. Considering that I’ve been something of an insomniac since I was a teenager, not to mention that fact that I spent twelve years as a shift worker, I’ve spent many overnight hours reading, and I still have many of the books that I began purchasing nearly 30 years ago. Those books, as well as my daughter’s toys and games were spilling all over the house, attic, closets, and filling every book shelf we have. So last week, my wife did something about it. She went to IKEA!

My wife’s plan was to pick up a pair of shelving units for my daughter’s bedroom which would be a good place for her toys, games, stuffed animals, as well as some of her books, that would in turn free up space on our actual bookshelves to store actual books. We went through many books, setting some aside for donation, and organizing the rest. In the meanwhile, my wife and father-in-law went to IKEA, picked up the two units, and I assembled with them with the help of my wife. All in all, it took a screw driver, a hammer, and about 20 minutes. My daughter’s toys, games and other sundries now have an attractive storage area that de-clutters her bedroom, and we have more shelf space to store our books. IKEA sold to my wife two inexpensive bookcases which have made our lives easier and would have taken me weeks to build and finish had I chosen to do it myself. I hate that place.


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