The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Do yourself a favor.

***CORRECTION*** There are only 8 parts and not 9 to the Paul Sellers wall clock project video. As I said, I watched the videos in succession overnight, so I easily made the mistake. Sorry if this caused any confusion***

Saturday night into Sunday morning I wasn’t feeling all that hot (yeah, even Captain America isn’t always on top of his game). It’s not so fun feeling not so hot on a nice morning late in spring, but I think I made the most of my time.

We have a “smart TV”, which I suppose is pretty much commonplace in today’s day and age. Whenever I get a free moment, I will watch a YouTube woodworking video from the comfort of my living room sofa. Late Saturday evening, just around midnight, I had a lot of free moments. I felt a bit like I had a hangover, but not the hangover you normally get from a fun-filled night of Jell-O shots, just the awful feeling of a pounding head coupled with the desire of not wanting to move or even blink. So I watched an episode of Band of Brothers, and then decided to check out some Paul Sellers videos. Most woodworkers know who Paul Sellers is, so I won’t get into any biography here. Most woodworker who follow the forums are also aware of the “controversy” surrounding Sellers a few years ago, which I also won’t get in to because it was ridiculous in the only way a “woodworking controversy” can be. More importantly, most woodworkers know that Sellers is a highly talented.

Saturday night was hardly the first time I’ve watched a Paul Sellers video, but it was the first time I watched him make a furniture project from start to finish. I noticed there was a 8-part series on making a wall clock, which seemed as good a way to kill the time as any. My plan was to put the videos on and hopefully drift off to sleep. I watched all 8 parts, and I can say without a doubt that it was by far the best woodworking project video I’ve ever watched. To put it in context, I started watching just after midnight; the videos ended just before 5 am. The sun had already risen, but I didn’t even notice, because the time went by that quickly. I’ve watched woodworking videos before that literally put me to sleep, these videos kept me awake and wanting to watch more even though the very reason I put them on was to have some background noise as I tried to relax. They were that good.

Watching a talented craftsman work is always enjoyable, at least to me, but the part of the series that really and truly sold me was the 8th and final episode, in which Sellers finishes the clock with shellac and wax. In fifteen minutes I learned more about finishing than I had in years of reading woodworking books and magazine articles on the subject. For instance, Sellers applied the wax with steel wool, which is fairly common, but he buffed it out with a soft-bristled shoe brush. While this may sound like common sense, I would never have thought of doing it that way. I was so impressed that yesterday morning I ran out and purchased a new shoe brush for that very purpose (like most people I have a shoe brush, but I purchased it when I was stationed in Oklahoma more than 20 years ago and it is infused with the grime of thousands of shoe polishings).

Of course there were dozens of little moments similar to the finishing techniques throughout the entire project that all stand out, from Sellers beading the frame to his making the bull nose profile with a #4 plane. Sellers works nearly exclusively with hand tools in his videos, but even if you don’t use hand tools, most of his methods will still apply to just about any shop. I work almost exclusively with hand tools for reasons that I’ve explained before. After watching this project series I am honestly considering going full hand tool! Why? Because I want to woodwork just like Paul Sellers. Like a cult leader, he just makes it sound so perfect. All kidding aside, I thought these videos were simply outstanding. And if you enjoy woodworking, and you are looking to improve, and you’ve never checked out a Paul Sellers video before, do yourself a favor and give it a look. You will be happy that you did.

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So close, and yet so far.

Yesterday morning I woke up early, even earlier than usual, and while waking up at 4:30 am wasn’t really what I had planned to do on Saturday morning, it did have an unexpected benefit; it finally gave me the free time to watch the “Making Traditional Side-Escapement Planes with Larry Williams” DVD uninterrupted. I found it a great instructional video for building and tuning traditional wood moulding planes, and for the first two hours I was not only enthralled, but also convinced that I could make my own set of moulding planes. Then….

Before I go on let me say that I’m not a traditionalist when it comes to woodworking. I believe in tradition, and I certainly believe that there are many traditions worth keeping. As far as moulding planes are concerned, some woodworkers would consider them an archaic tool, and the pre-cursor to the electric router, but I do not. The argument seems to make sense; moulding planes have been in existence for 300 + years, they are hand powered, and more than any other tool they have a traditional look and feel to them. An electric router can do many of the things that a set of moulding planes can do, and they are usually less expensive and arguably faster. But I don’t like electric routers. To me, an electric router is a carpentry tool used for making kitchen cabinets and installing floors, not a tool for fine furniture making. There are a million people who will argue that I am dead wrong, and there are woodworkers who can do amazing things with electric routers. I’m not trying to dissuade anybody one way or the other, but after using moulding planes for the past few months I’ve discovered that they can do many things that a router can not, such as easily add a bead to an already assembled piece of furniture.

In my opinion, electric routers are better suited to woodworkers with a professional-style shop. Routers are loud, which can be worked around for the user, but my wife and kid don’t necessarily like wearing hearing protection in the house. Routers are also messy, in particular when you are using one away from a router table. I don’t have any real dust-collection system; it’s not that I wouldn’t like one, but I don’t really have a place in my garage to properly set it up. Using a router by hand makes more of a mess than any other woodworking tool. On the other hand, a moulding plane creates shavings that are much more easily cleaned up, and it does it with far more control, and with a lot less noise. Once again, if you don’t mind the noise or the mess, then by all means do what you like. As I was saying, I’m not trying to convince anybody one way or the other. I’m just presenting my own reasons for using moulding planes.

Anyway, back to the video. “Making Traditional Side-Escapement Planes with Larry Williams” starts off with an introduction to different types of moulding planes and the tools/materials needed to make them. The good news for the prospective plane maker is that there are fewer specialty tools needed than I thought there would be, maybe $300 worth if all purchased new. Most of the tools used would already be owned by the average woodworker. Williams starts with a blank billet and in around two hours turns it into a beautifully shaped plane (he is making a pair of #10 hollow and rounds to be precise). The instruction is very concise, and the camera work shows all the steps clearly. Just as the plane body was being shaped and finished I had no doubt in my mind that I had the ability to make my own set of moulding planes. Then it came time to shape the plane iron.

I’m not a metal smith by any stretch. I know how to sharpen with a grinder, and at my former job I ground and shaped parts to fit on a weekly basis. With a little trial and error I know that I could shape moulding plane iron blanks into the workable tools. But there is a big problem: I don’t have the necessary space and equipment to do it. While I could possibly find a suitable grinder on the used market at a reasonable cost, there is nowhere on my property where I could safely heat treat the plane irons in order to harden them after the grinding process. My heart sank while watching that section of the video. I love woodworking and all, but I’m not about to turn my attached garage into a forge. I just won’t risk it; one misstep and my house is on fire.

The iron work not withstanding, I really enjoyed the video, and I just may make some blanks and search for the irons on the used market. Even if I never make a set of moulding planes, the video is a great resource on the inner workings of these tools, how they function, and how they can be restored. I highly recommend it to those of you who enjoy using moulding planes. I just wish I had access to a forge, because I would probably be attempting to make a set right now if I did.

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