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Embracing technology

I recently did a routine cleaning/organization of my garage and once again discovered some items I didn’t even realize I had, among them literally thousands of drill bits, of every size you can possibly imagine (where did I get them? your guess is as good as mine). But I think the most surprising discovery was a stack of hundreds of woodworking magazines. Everything was there from Shop Notes, Woodsmith, Popular Woodworking, Fine Woodworking, Wood, and several others. I did not stop and bother to count them out, but there were at least 200. Many years ago I installed two spare kitchen cabinets in the back corner of my garage, which is ‘L’ shaped, and considering that the ‘L’ portion of my garage is a forgotten corner of odds and ends, I basically forgot about them. And since I’ve been reading woodworking magazines even before I started woodworking, I had amassed quite a collection. Likely, I placed the magazines in the cabinet sometime during the spring of 2013 because, June 2013 is the latest issue I can find in there, but I found some Shop Notes dating back to 2005, which is surprising because I honestly hadn’t realized I had been subscribing for that long. Here’s the worst part, I also have three plus years worth of Popular Woodworking in our spare bedroom.

I couldn’t tell you how many magazines I’ve subscribed to in my lifetime, but it has been a lot. I can name at least forty off the top of my head, yet there are at least forty more that I am forgetting.  I would have to say my love of magazines started in the military. As I was in during the pre-cell phone, pre-internet world, receiving a magazine or two or three during mail call was a connection to the outside world during a time when it was very easy to feel isolated from the rest of society. And being a man of many interests, I subsequently subscribed to a variety of different magazines.

Yet, there has been a difference between my woodworking magazines and nearly every other magazine I’ve ever read; for whatever reasons it seems I’ve been vey reluctant to discard those woodworking magazines. I’m not quite sure what this reluctance stems from, however. Going through that pile, I made the difficult choice to put many of them in the recycle bins. The Woodsmith and Shopnotes, which have thicker paper and binder rings, I hope can be used by my local library, otherwise, I will recycle many of those as well.

I’ve never been a hoarder, not even close. Every six months I go through my clothing, and every six months I bring a pile to Goodwill. The same can be said for many things I have; if it is unused it gets donated, period. I cannot stand the thought of clutter, yet for some reason I could not stand the thought of parting with my old woodworking magazines. Maybe that says something about me and the value that woodworking has in my life. I’m sure it does in some regard.

So, just this morning I renewed my subscription to Popular Woodworking. I had let it lapse without realizing. And when I renewed I selected the ‘Digital Issue’ option. This is the first time I have ever purchased a digital only magazine, and I’m not too sure how I feel about it just yet. One of the great, simple pleasures I enjoyed was throwing the latest issue of PW into my backpack and reading it during break at work, or paging through it while sitting in the living room. Now, I will have to read it from a tablet, or from my desktop. Of things to complain about, having to read a magazine from a tablet is way down on the list. And the good news is I now have an instant archive to go through when need be.

Though I embraced the digital world years ago, there are many things I miss. I am sure many people feel the same way. Maybe one day soon print magazines will no longer exist. And maybe that is a good thing, because I would think that it is much more cost effective to go that route. When and if that day comes, I won’t be too happy about it. But, I had to make a choice to help keep my life and house uncluttered, and a digital magazine is a start.

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The times that try woodworker’s souls.

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.

Op-Ed

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.

 

Thanks.

Tiny Furniture

The last few weeks have been something of a brief woodworking/blogging hiatus for me. The week before last was bitterly cold, and the past week I spent taking care of some things around the house as well as making provisions to renew my connection with the Park Service. Fortunately I was able to speak with in person the park ranger who coordinates volunteer projects and he assured me that my services were missed and they would love me to begin working again. Not that I needed any affirmation, the Park Service appreciates volunteers of all skill levels, but it was nice to hear nonetheless.

Otherwise, I do have two woodworking projects ready to go. One is a wall rack for the left side of my workbench. I had mentioned in a previous post that I picked up the wood to make cleats and some small tool mounts a few weeks back. With the temperatures in my garage fluctuating the two boards warped pretty badly. So each day after work I turned them over and they would warp in the other direction. Strangely, after two weeks of doing this the boards are no longer warped, at least not warped badly. I also have the material all prepped and ready to make my “Paul Sellers” box to hold my shoe shining polish and brushes. Ironically I shined two pairs of shoes over the weekend, and considering that I call myself a woodworker yet my shoeshine brushes (some of which I’ve had for more than 20 years) were sitting on a bookshelf in our spare bedroom I was honestly ashamed of the fact that I never made a decent box to store them in.

But the real reason I am writing is because last night I read a post on the Lost Art Press blog. To be honest I’m not really sure where the post was going, but that’s not really my concern, but in it there is a mention of a woman who wanted to make doll furniture when she was younger and never got around to doing it. That struck a chord with me, because many times my daughter has asked me to help her make furniture for her dolls and many times I made excuses why I couldn’t. I feel pretty rotten about that in all honesty. There’s no reason I can’t spend a few hours making a dining room table with some craft boards for my daughter. More importantly, there’s no reason why she can’t help me do it. It’s not as if I’m going to be making tiny joinery. I’m planning on some glue, a little sand paper, and some oil finish.

One of my favorite quotations attributed to Benjamin Franklin is (paraphrased) “What good shall I do today?”. I honestly try to live my life by that motto, whether it’s doing a good job at work, or reading something new, or exercising, or being a better woodworker, (or getting better at World of Tanks). I always thought that ‘being a good father’ is implied in that list, but it really isn’t, and I should always be striving to be a better dad. I was ashamed of myself after reading that paragraph, and I should be. Whatever I may be, I’m not lazy. My daughter deserves better, and if I can’t make a piece of doll furniture with her that would not just make me a piss poor woodworker, it would make me a piss poor father. I’m not going to let that happen.

 

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.

 

I firmly resolve

I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions; never have been. That doesn’t mean I have something against them, but I don’t know what I’ll be doing two weeks from now. So making superficial, open-ended plans just because it happens to be January 1st doesn’t really appeal to me.

That being said, I have some woodworking resolutions I would like to make.

Firstly, Shannon Rogers of the Hand Tool School made a resolution (or something like that) last year to not purchase any woodworking tools for the upcoming year. At least I think he did, I just saw this mentioned last week. Anyway, I think that is a good idea. So I resolve to not purchase any “new” woodworking tools for at least six months. I will not say that I’m not going to purchase any tools. If I happen to see an old tool (preferably one that needs restoration) for a decent price I may decide to buy it. I  really don’t need any new or old tools to be honest. I can make just about anything within my skills with the tools I already own.

And for the record, I’m not becoming an old tool junkie. But I would like to continue to practice refurbishing (old and new) tools, and what better way to do that than to purchase an inexpensive vintage tool that needs some work?

Secondly, I would like to make a nice piece of furniture using as much construction grade lumber as possible. Every hobbyist woodworker knows that lumber is not getting any cheaper. I’ve been experimenting lately with turning construction lumber into finished boards and having some pretty good results. Another thing, most of the construction lumber in my area is fir. I’ve found that I love the look of fir when finished with linseed oil or certain light tinted finishes by Minwax such as “Golden Oak”. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but I happen to think that naturally finished fir is beautiful.

Third on the list is saw sharpening. I can happily say that I’ve become fairly good (meaning consistent) at sharpening all of my edge tools. Saw sharpening, however, is an area where I have little experience. I can count the number of times I’ve really sharpened a saw on one hand. The good news is two-fold: I have been mostly successful so far with my attempts, and I have two nice saws (both given to me) that need to be sharpened. The bad news, though, is a challenge. I have never successfully sharpened a fine-toothed saw, such as a 20ppi dovetail saw. I’ve tried to sharpen my Spear and Jackson back-saw but the results were iffy. I didn’t make it any worse, but it wasn’t really much better either.

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Last on the list (so far) is practicing dovetails again. When I first began woodworking seriously, I used to saw a set of dovetails almost every day. I got to be quite good at it without bragging too much. I don’t believe in sawing dovetails just for the sake of dovetails. But sawing dovetails is also a great way to improve your overall sawing skills, accurate layout, and chisel work, not to mention the fact that you need to sharpen your tools if you want nice joinery.

I probably won’t have the time to saw a set of dovetails every night, but three times per week shouldn’t be a problem.

Of course there is some furniture I would like to make as well, but I had been planning on doing that regardless. As far as the list, the not purchasing new tools part isn’t much of a problem. The others are just a matter of my own will power. Becoming a better saw sharpener is probably my number one priority as far as developing skill is concerned. The construction lumber is an ongoing experiment that I’ve already begun, and the dovetail practice is a revival of sorts.

Otherwise, I would just like to survive the winter without freezing my ass off.

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.

 

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