The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Rainy day people.

When a carpenter or woodworker finds usable wood it is akin to finding forgotten money in the pocket of a jacket, and ideas come into being that otherwise would never have existed. So a few weeks back I was adding a receptacle in our attic when I found a some nice, straight 1x6x3ft pine boards stacked neatly next to the Christmas decorations. They were remnants of my daughter’s former bed, which years back I converted from a bunk to a single. I must have thought them too nice to send to the landfill, so they were put in the attic for safe keeping. I decided to use a few of those boards to replace the trim around the window at the back of the garage. The wider boards made it easy to add brackets for additional tools that I like to keep right at the bench. I’ve always kept drill bits and such on the window ledge, and that coupled with a bad weather forecast is what led to my latest project.

Many years ago it seems, like most new homeowners I attempted to tackle many carpentry tasks around the house. Thankfully I can say with honesty that I was much more successful than not. As I am currently not building much furniture, my workbench has been used for carpentry projects more than ever before. I have many loose drill bits that I have been trying to organize, so when I found a few scrap walnut blocks I decided to make a “quick” little organizer to keep them all together. The organizer is modeled after a “stepped” bit holder that I’ve had for many years. I don’t know exactly where I got it, but it appears to have been at one time a display from a hardware store. I’ve always like the look of it, so I copied it directly. The original organizer is made from one piece of wood, which I believe is beech. But I needed three pieces of Walnut to mimic the dimensions.

I wanted to make this project with handtools….not for any philosophical reasons….but because it was a small and simple project. Prepping the rough sawn walnut pieces was the most time consuming aspect of the project, though it didn’t take too long. I wasn’t necessarily attempting to plane a perfectly flat surface, but a surface that would glue up nicely. Regarding the holes to hold the bits, perfect spacing was less of a concern than keeping the lines straight. I attempted to drill them with a hand drill (powered) but by the third hole the line was already off, even though I was using a knife line. I then attempted drilling in a straight line using drill press (without a fence) and received similar results. I filled the badly aligned holes with dowels, flipped over the blanks, and rather than continue to be frustrated, I made a quick fence for the drill press with a piece of scrap pine and some toggle bolts that I had initially planned on using anyway….I admit it, I got lazy and careless and thought I could get away with not using a fence. The first two steps were made with ¼ inch holes, and the top step with ½ inch. The top row of holes should be a bit deeper, but that is easily correctable.

The glue up went shockingly well, and I let it cure for several days, as I was in no rush. The glue lines were nice, tight, and straight, and the bottom required just a few passes with a smooth plane to flatten. After the organizer dried it was time to saw to final width. For some odd reason, I managed to saw the right side almost perfectly straight, the left side, however, not so much. Because there was no longer any margin for error on the left side (if I wanted to keep it symmetrical that is) I very reluctantly muscled the table saw out of its corner to make a single cross-cut. The cross cut took less than 10 seconds; setting up the saw, cleaning up after it was used, and then returning it to the corner took 10 minutes. I then chamfered the steps with a block plane, lightly sanded the holder with 150g and then 220g sandpaper, and applied BLO, also applying a coat to the original organizer for good measure. I let both dry for a day and a half, and applied a coat of soft wax to each.

The completed holder is not particularly special as far as shop projects are concerned. It was more gratifying for me to use up scrap by converting it to something useful. I will be perfectly honest, I do not enjoy making shop projects. I find them tedious to build and more often than not it is easier and less expensive to purchase what is needed. Time is money, and the older I get, the more valuable my time has become to me. But in this case, it was a way to pass the time during a week of rainy days. If the weather had been nicer this project would have never been started. But I suppose that is the nice thing about having some tools and scrap wood. On days when the weather is bad, and time is on your side, something can be accomplished, and when all is said and done, that is what life is all about, isn’t it?

The planed pieces, slightly oversized, ready to be drilled out and glued up.
Makeshift drill press fence.
Misadventures in drilling holes along a straight line.
Holes drilled and organizer glued up, planed/chamfered, and sawn to final size.
Old and new organizers, both with a fresh coat of BLO and paste wax. This little project cleared up a lot of clutter that otherwise would be lying on the window ledge.

Farewell my friend.

For all of the years I’ve been writing this blog I’ve always made an attempt to keep my family out of the picture. I love my family; I’m proud of my family, but this blog is not about them; it is supposed to be about woodworking and the trials and tribulations I’ve encountered along the way. But in the case of this post I will make an exception.

My parents split up when I was very young, and in 1984 my mom remarried. Thankfully, I had a great relationship with my new step-dad. In nearly forty years our relationship grew from step-parent, to parent, to friend. Two weeks ago, after a year-long battle with terminal cancer, he passed away. For my own sake I am grateful to say that I was right by his side to the end.

 This man taught me quite a bit in my life, and his influence on both my career and hobbies is undeniable. He was a highly skilled production machine mechanic, but that tells only a very small part of his story. There was little he couldn’t build or repair, and everything from auto-mechanics, to electronics, to all of the building trades were not beyond his abilities. I am happy to say that when I was a teenager he passed on some of those skills to me, and as a 14 year old boy I was able to drive a manual transmission, because the old lawn tractor he refurbished had a 3-speed gear box and a clutch. When other 14 years-old’s were playing video games, I was replacing circuit breakers and soldering pipes. Sure, some kids my age may have been mowing their lawns, but I was changing the oil on the tractor and sharpening the blades with a file. I was installing retaining walls when other kids were playing wiffle ball in the middle of the street. And like adolescents sometimes do, there were days when resented it…until I was old enough to know just what he was teaching me. It wasn’t all work, he also bought for me my first guitar, not because I asked him to, but because he felt that playing an instrument was important. He loved gadgets, card games, and unusual documentaries about aliens, and bigfoot, and strange pyramids…not that he believed them, but he sure as hell thought they were entertaining. He showed me a lot. Perhaps most importantly, to me at least, he showed me that there was a lot more to life than congested, row-house lined North Philadelphia streets so narrow that compact cars had trouble navigating them. I spent summers working on wide country lawns and corn fields while my friends in the city sweated on the dirty asphalt.

The day after he passed away, as friends and family were stopping by to pay their respects, I did what I’ve done every Spring for the past few years and began working on his lawn. He loved lawn maintenance, and on weekends that was where you could find him, no matter the time of year. As he got older, I helped when I could, though up until recently he rarely needed me. Last year, I took over those duties full-time when he became too ill to maintain it to his own high standards. I was the only other person he trusted with his lawn, and he always said that when I cut the grass and trimmed the edges he knew that it was “done right.” I’ve mowed that lawn so many times that I knew where he wanted each and every line to go. As I was returning the mower to the shed I noticed in one of the half-barrel flower pots that lined the south wall a pair of pump pliers he always used to remove the lawn mower blades for sharpening. I am guessing that last fall, as he was closing up for the season, he removed the blades (twin deck mower) and sharpened them, and when he reattached them he forgot to return the pliers to their proper place in the shed. Like any good mechanic, he took care of his tools, but he never, ever babied them as I do mine. The long, cold, snowy and damp winter did a number on them.

I brought those pliers home so I could make them usable again. I reached for the correct wrench to separate the jaws on the first try, because many years ago he showed me a little trick that I still use to this very day that has impressed many of my co-workers ever since, and one that I won’t share with anyone else, because I am keeping it between him and I. I scrubbed and cleaned the rust away, reassembled the pliers, adding a few drops of 3in1 oil for good measure. I’ll use those pliers soon when I remove the blade from my own mower. And when I do I’ll think of him, and everything he’s taught me. And every weekend I’ll let him know that his lawn is in good hands.

But I am going to miss turning onto the road that leads to his house, and seeing his unmistakable silhouette against the backdrop of flowering pear trees that lined the property. I’ll miss our weekly Saturday morning planning of the 3 car detached garage with the apartment suite on top that he always wanted to build, and of course figuring out a way to finance it without my mom knowing. I’ll miss his incredibly dry sense of humor and quick wit. I’ll miss his incomparable patience. But mostly, I’ll just miss my friend.

Being good is good enough.

Once upon a time, a lifetime ago it seems, I was a good musician. ‘Good’ is a subjective word, so when I say “good” I mean to say that I studied music in college. I was good enough to pass the audition to get into the program, and I was good enough to survive the juries at the end of each semester. I was good enough to play hundreds of gigs in bars and clubs all around the Philadelphia, South Jersey region. My ear was good and I had decent hands. Then one day I decided to get married, buy a house, and start a family, and my career as a semi-professional musician ended, almost overnight it seemed. It didn’t bother me much, as my dreams of rock-stardom were never all that grandiose. And, I took solace in knowing that one day I would again find the spare time to dedicate to playing music again.

So a few months ago my daughter asked if she could take guitar lessons, and I was more than happy to oblige. On a whim, I purchased a decent acoustic guitar for myself, and began playing it perhaps 15 or 20 minutes per night. The bad news is that my hands are no longer what they were and never will be again, but the good news…very pleasant and encouraging good news…is that I still know how to play a little. For the record, guitar has always been my weakest instrument (of the instruments I play, that is); I was never a virtuoso by any stretch, but I was certainly good enough to carry the rhythm in most settings, when playing jazz, blues, or rock/pop. I knew the fretboard well, and I could work my way through most songs with just a little rehearsal.

Considering that I haven’t picked up a guitar and attempted to really make music with one in a very long time, I am encouraged by the progress I’ve made, and this has a lot of bearing on my current woodworking status. Because physically I am not doing so well. My back has been bothering me for more than a month and there is nothing I can do to fix it but rest. Just the other day I spent 30 minutes in the garage making a quick coatrack to hang on the back of a door and my back did not like it one bit. I’ve decided that for the rest of the winter, and perhaps beyond, I will not even attempt any type of woodworking or furniture making project unless it is absolutely necessary. I need to get my back healthy again, and standing at a workbench in a cold garage isn’t going to help get that done. But, I consider myself a “good” woodworker,  and one who could have perhaps been very good had I chosen it as a career path. This is important.

My little return to the world of music has shown me that even if I take a longer break than I would like, a return to hobby that I love doesn’t necessarily mean starting from scratch. I can thankfully say that I possess the base skills of woodworking, and those skills can be revived with a little time and effort even after a long hiatus. Hopefully this hiatus isn’t as long as my departure from the world of music, but even in the unlikely event that it is, I go into it comforted in the knowledge that when you are good at something, you never really forget, and with a little time and effort, it is possible to be good again.

Just a quick suggestion

During the past few years I’ve gotten into the habit of taking as many notes as possible when working on a project large and small. I write down just about anything that I feel is relevant: species used, dimensions, finish used, number of coats, hardware used, etc. But one thing that I’ve never thought about notating is the tools that were used during construction.

Just the other night I watched a YouTube furniture restoration video from Thomas Johnson and at the end of the video he makes mention of the tools he used to complete the restoration, and I thought that this was a pretty clever idea. It may be that most woodworkers will remember those things anyway, but it certainly couldn’t hurt to write it down. The size of chisels used, profiles used, sandpaper grit, etc. All of that information could come in handy at some point.

So, if I can offer a suggestion, it may be wise to notate the tools used on a project along with any other relevant information you might have (I wrote a post on this around a month ago). I’ve found that every bit of knowledge, no matter how small, can really help. So I’m going to add this little “trick” to my routine, and I think it might be a good idea for others to do the same.

Do you have a real workshop?

I wanted to start off by saying that I hope everyone is having a fun and happy holiday season. With that out of the way, it is time to complain.

A few weeks ago I strained my back at work; it has been quite painful. I didn’t strain it because I’m old…well that is part of it…but because I was carrying thousands of pounds of electrical conduit on my shoulder. The relevance of my back injury is in that I have a few days off from work for the Christmas break, and I had hoped to perhaps woodwork a little in my “shop”. But my little “shop” is not a workshop at all, it is a one-car garage, unheated with concrete floors. And with the weather cool and damp, just standing in there for 15 minutes yesterday left my barely improving back stiffer than the boards that I was hoping to turn into…something.

I’m not sure exactly how long I’ve been writing this blog, but if there has been one consistency, it has been my constant complaints regarding the workspace I have, or don’t have, depending on your point of view. Some may say that I am more fortunate than most, because as far as one car garages go mine isn’t bad. It is approximately 12 feet wide by 25 feet long, with a 6ft x 6ft bump-in at the back right side which is a decent storage area. On paper this looks like an ideal place for a part-time amateur to woodwork. But reality is a lot different than on paper, and reality is never more real than when experiencing back pain.

The first issue with the garage is simple: we use it as a garage and my wife’s car is parked in there. So if I want to woodwork on the weekends, far more often than not it means that my wife’s car has to go elsewhere. The second issue is that we also use the garage for a spare refrigerator and freezer. While these don’t take up an enormous amount of space, they do take up space that could be used for workshop related things. The third issue, and the one that bothers me most, is that my garage is filled with things that do not belong in a garage.

For many years I had a habit of doing a twice a year cleanout of the garage. Anything that hadn’t been used in a while, or had expired, or didn’t seem to belong to something else, was disposed of without regret. During the Covid lockdown summer of 2020 I really went to town, and the garage had never been cleaner or better organized. When I took a step back to admire a clean, uncluttered, and well-organized space, my wife, bless her, took a step back and saw a lot more space to fill with stuff that has no business being in a garage…like Halloween decorations, and Christmas decorations, and bird feeders that will never be hung, and 20 pairs of shoes that will never be worn again, and tables and chairs that at one time were kept in the attic because they are only used twice a year. So here we are.

I have a fairly simple criteria for what constitutes a real workshop.

  1. If you have a workbench, and most woodworkers do, can you access all four sides of it? In my case, I cannot. I can only really access two sides, and that is being generous.
  2. If you use power tools such as a tablesaw or a planer, do they have a dedicated usage space or do they need to be wheeled into place and then returned after being used because they will otherwise be in the way? In my case power tools must be wheeled into place. However, I do not often use power tools anymore, and for the sake of full disclosure, the two power tools that I use consistently, a drill press and a powered grinder, do have a dedicated space.
  3. Is tool and material storage an issue? In my case, tool storage is not, but material storage is a big one. A few years back I solved the workshop layout problem, and I can say with honesty that my tools are generally visible and easy to access. Material storage, however, is not solvable. I just do not and will never have the space to meaningfully store wood in the garage.
  4. Is your workshop comfortable for working? Mine is not, and this is perhaps the biggest concern. My garage, with concrete floors and no heat, is miserable to work in during the winter months, and during the heat of the summer it is not much better. As I am getting older, and less strong, and less tolerant to pain, I find that I cannot work in the garage for more than an hour or so without taking a break….that when my back isn’t hurting. And this perhaps has been the most disheartening aspect of all.

    I’ve left off the list things such as lighting, and dust collection, and power supply etc, because if the other criteria are not met then anything that comes after doesn’t really matter much. I thought that switching to an all hand tool approach would solve the other issues, but it has done so only to a certain extent. With my current situation, I will never have full workbench access, which is vital to hand tool use; I will never have material storage, which affects productivity no matter which style of woodworking you prefer, and most importantly, I will never have a comfortable workspace that doesn’t leave my body in some form of pain after I am done using the space.

    So, here I am, nearly 50 years old, and the outlook is not good. There needs to be a solution, and quickly, because I can no longer comfortably use my garage as a workspace. I’ve found that in the 20 years I’ve been here, the garage and myself have had a pretty dysfunctional relationship. There’s been some really good times, but also a lot of pain and misery. In a dysfunctional relationship we often justify pain and misery as part of the experience, like a boxer knowing that he is going to have to take punches if he wants to call himself a fighter. But I don’t want to take any more punches, because punches hurt, and as much as I hate to admit it, I can no longer take the pain.

Clean your tools. It’s free.

Before I get started, I would like to say for the record that I try to keep my tools as clean as possible.

Last week when I finished up yet another little box I noticed that my smooth plane was covered in what looked like powdered cocoa. As I was working with Walnut this wasn’t much of a surprise, because Walnut seems to me to be more “dusty” than other typical furniture woods, but the sheer amount of dust was what threw me, so to speak. I didn’t do much sanding, and the sanding that was done was done by hand. I decided that it would be a good time to take apart the smooth plane and give it a quick cleaning, and while I was at it I decided that I may as well do the same to the jack plane, as that was used as well. So when I took apart both planes I was appalled at what I saw…they were both filthy.

As I said, I keep my tools clean, or at least I thought I did. After each use I use a brush to remove dust and then I wipe them down with a lightly oiled cloth. It turns out that this isn’t nearly enough to keep the tools truly clean. Plane frogs and chipbreakers invariably collect dust and shaving particles during use, that is nothing unusual, but mine seemed to have a layer of gunk that had permeated every nook and cranny of the tools. So I used a soft cleaning brush to really scrub them out, lightly oiled the tools and wiped off the excess, and then returned them to their proper place on the shelf. Afterwards, the rest of the tools in the bench area were cleaned, because they were not as clean as I thought they would or should be, either. And for good measure, I even lightly planed the bench top. This all took several hours of work, but it was well worth it.

Some will say that this is a good reason to keep tools in a toolbox or chest, and of course there is some logic to that line of thought. But I prefer to see my tools when I am working rather than to dig through a chest looking for them. Regardless of where your tools are stored, do yourself a favor and clean them; clean them even if you think they are already clean; it doesn’t cost you anything but a bit of your time. I thought mine were clean and they were not. Dust build-up can wreck your tools either hand or power. Dust collects moisture, and moisture makes rust…I just witnessed it. A few minutes per tool is all it takes. And while you’re at it…make your bed…that’s free too.

When thin is not in.

Lately I’ve been searching for a small project that would be challenging to build but also within my skillset. Because I enjoy American Colonial era furniture, I gravitated to Thomas Jefferson, who among other things was well known as an innovative furniture designer. I’ve always wanted to build Jefferson’s revolving bookstand, but because I have nowhere to keep or display it that project has always been out of my reach, so to speak. However, Jefferson’s famous writing box, on which he composed the Declaration of Independence, is small enough and seems more than challenging enough to keep me occupied over the winter months.

Last week I was doing some research on the writing box and found that much of the material used to make the project was quite thin, 1/4 inch and 3/8 inch thick for many of the boards. I often don’t use material so thin and in general prefer 1/2 inch thick stock for making small boxes and such. But it seems that many colonial era boxes were made from “thin” material. So as a sort-of practice run I decided to make a small box from a piece of walnut I had lying around.

The walnut board I had was rough-sawn, just over one inch thick, 12 inches wide and 20 inches long. I first ripped it into two pieces 4 inches wide using a hand saw. I then re-sawed those pieces into (2) 9/16th thick boards. That whole process went surprisingly quickly. I then had to plane down the boards to 3/8 thick, and that’s where the trouble started. I did not take long to plane the boards down, but it was difficult getting the boards ready for use. I had to remove a lot of material from the rough sawn side to get to good wood, so much so that after all was said and done I ended up with a hair under 3/8 of an inch thick. In retrospect I probably should have re-sawn the board to 5/8 inch thick, or even a shade more, to account for the amount of rough material that would need to be removed.

Speaking for myself, sawing dovetails seemed far more difficult on the thinner stock. For dovetailed boxes, I prefer using 1/2 inch thick because I find it the easiest thickness to work with, and it seems to make the nicest looking tails and pins. Thankfully I was able to make joints that fit well and were tight. But the next issue crept up at the worst possible time.

The back board, on the left side if we are looking at the box from front to back, was planed slightly thinner at the top corner. I did not notice it until I did the final dry fit before glue up. There was no way to correct it without starting over again, and after putting in several hours of work already I was not going to go that route unless all else failed. So I glued it up and hoped for the best, but the best was not in the cards. The slightly thinner end created a skew that was nearly 1/16th out of square from front to back, which was clearly visible. With no other simple options available, I used the clamps to straighten it up as best as possible and moved on to creating the lid and the base.

The base, which was going to be a piece 1/4 inch thick walnut that was left over from the re-sawing, cracked as I was trying to plane it. Instead of re-sawing another board I used a piece of left-over cherry from a prior project. Once the box was dry I checked it and thankfully the clamps helped to square it up considerably, though it was still off a touch. I attached the base with glue and while it was drying I used a moving fillister plane to create the panel on the sliding lid, and a block plane to carefully plane it to correct width. I let everything dry overnight and in the morning sawed and planed the base to fit. Lastly, I gave the whole box a light sanding and applied a few coats of BLO. Later on in the week I will apply several coats of wax over the course of a few days.

If this project taught me one thing it taught me that I have a lot of practice ahead of me if I want to make Jefferson’s box and actually have it turn out nicely. The good news is that I was able to salvage this little project and turn it into something that looks half-decent. The bad news is that somebody who has been woodworking as long as I have shouldn’t have had the troubles that I had in the first place. Five years ago I probably would have called this one a moral victory, but today I can’t in good conscience say that.

As I am usually fond of saying when completing a project: Not my best work but hardly my worst. Well in this case it definitely wasn’t my best work, and was much closer to my worst. If anything else, I just hope that I learned something.

Using clamps to hopefully square up the box.
Making the lid as the box and base are drying. I applied a thin coat of wax on the outside of the box so that glue squeeze out wouldn’t stick to it…it was one of the few things that actually worked according to plan. Also, you may be able to notice in this photo that I was sort-of able to make a decent grain match running all around the box.
Test fitting the lid after it was sawn to length.
The box with BLO applied. I will add a few coats of wax later on in the week.
Two coats of wax applied. It is a touch taller and thinner (both in width and material used) than the oak and cherry versions. I will apply two more coats of wax and see how it looks before going any further.

Gift list addendum.

Last week, I posted a “gift guide” which featured a short list of inexpensive items that I feel are useful to any home woodworker or DIYer. I stand by that list completely, as I own and use every item on it. And, 4 of the 5 items are made in the United States (I am not sure where ACE Hardware sources their pencils to be completely honest and it does not say either on the pencil or on the ACE website). This all being said, I would like to make a small addition and/or substitution to that gift guide.

One of the recommended gifts on my guide was a ‘Write’ brand spiral bound pocket ledger. Keeping a small note pad handy while working on a project can be a life saver, and jotting down measurements or any general project information is a smart habit to get into (I fully admit that I sometimes forget to do this, myself).  I like using spiral bound pads because they lay flat on the bench, and the small ledger pad is nice because it easily fits into a front or back pocket. If it has a drawback, it is its smaller size. Sometimes I will sketch some basic information rather than or in addition to making a written notation, and this isn’t necessarily easy to do on a smaller pad. However, just as I was completing the gift guide post, I went onto the ‘Write’ website to verify the current cost of the ledger pad I recommended and noticed a product which they refer to as the ‘Reporter’s Notebook’, which is in essence 4in x 8in version of the pad that I’ve been using. Cost, at $11.99 each, is a bit more than the ledger pad, but still fairly inexpensive. On a whim I ordered two, one in black, and one with a natural kraft cover.

The new pads arrived the other day and I am very pleased with them. They have the same tough construction as the ledger pad, offer a larger writing surface, and though they will not comfortably fit into a front or back pocket, they are still small enough to easily fit into a drawer or toolbox, or perhaps most importantly, they will not get in the way when they are on the workbench top. I highly recommend them if you are looking for a larger notepad that is not a full-sized copy book.

So what do I usually write down while working on a project? The first thing I write down is all of the relevant measurements. I rarely, as in almost never, follow woodworking plans. Nearly every project I build usually has measurements that fall into two criteria: the space I have to place the finished project, and the dimensions I can get out of the material that I am using. For instance, if I have space for a bookcase that is 6ft, 6inches tall, but the material I have on hand will only allow a bookcase 6ft, 2inches tall, then it doesn’t take a psychic to figure out what size case I’m building.

Another project aspect that I will usually notate is the type of finish I used, the name and number of the finish if I am using a stain, where I purchased it, and the time and date I made the applications, including any applications of finish wax; I’ve found doing this to be quite helpful as well.

Lastly, if there is hardware in the project, I will usually note the type and amount that was used. For instance, if I used hinges for a box lid, I will write down the brand, size, part number, etc. and any relevant information that I can find on the package just in case I need to purchase a replacement. Once again, this may sound like common sense, but trust me it can really save a few headaches. Some people use their phone to take a photo of the package, but rather than fill my phone with photos of screws, hinges, and cans of stain, I find it simpler just to write it down on a notepad that is always at my workbench. And, I know that I already mentioned this, but a date is always a helpful addition to any notations.

And my little list of rules doesn’t only apply to building furniture. I would highly recommend doing this for any home improvement project, perhaps even more so. For instance, I recently had to replace the door switch in our dryer, and when I did I made a notation of the switch part#, the date I ordered it (and installed it), and where I purchased it.

So, as I said in my last post, I don’t generally like making gift recommendations, but I do feel safe in recommending both the list and this addition to it. I am hoping to start a new project this coming weekend, and I am hoping even more so that my next post is about actual woodworking.

A quick gift guide for your special woodworker.

With the holiday season fast approaching, and with many store shelves still much more empty than full, the conventional wisdom of those deemed wise is the recommendation that everybody who gives gifts should purchase them sooner rather than later. Though I’m not usually inclined to posts “gift guides”, I do have a small list consisting of 5 items, all under $20, that can generally be purchased at just about any hardware store. I believe that most homeowners, DIYers, and aspiring furniture makers will probably find these items useful. So here goes nothing.

The first item on the list is Milwaukee Tools jobsite, offset scissors. They are great for cutting up sandpaper sheets, rags, opening molded plastic packages, and many other odd jobs around the house and the workshop. The handle openings are large, for larger hands, even when wearing gloves. For some reason there is a ruler on one of the scissor blades, which I am not sure can be practically used. Otherwise, this is a good tool to have. I paid approximately $19 for mine.

The second item on the list is another from Milwaukee tools, a 4 ½ inch trim square. Basically a smaller speed square, this is a very handy tool to have, even if your are a snobby woodworker who scoffs at using a “carpenter’s” tool. More than anything I build smaller projects now, and the compact size of this tool makes it perfect for such things, in particular where a larger square would be more unwieldy to handle. And, it is more than accurate enough for layout, or checking your table saw or miter saw for square (if you use those tools, that is). I can’t remember exactly what I paid for the tool, but I’m sure it was less than $20.

The third item on the list is 3in1 oil. I’ve been using 3in1 oil both on the job and at home for as long as I can remember. It is great for a multitude of tasks, from lubricating and protecting screw threads on your handplanes to protecting just about all your tools, both woodworking and non-woodworking, from rust and corrosion. It can also be used in car doors, lawnmowers, hinges, bicycle chains…pretty much anywhere you need a low-combustible lubricant and cleaner. And it is every inexpensive, a year’s supply is less than $10.

The fourth item on the list is jumbo pencils. I’ve been using these for less than a year but I’ve come to really like them. They are larger than the typical pencils that most of us had in our school bags when we were kids, making them easier for an adult with larger hands to handle, and despite their larger size they can be sharpened to a fine point. Though I still use a regular sized pencil or a knife for marking dovetails, I use the larger pencil for many other lay out tasks. One drawback is that the average, thumb-sized sharpener will not work on them. I personally use an electric sharpener that will sharpen pencils up to 12mm in diameter. I purchased my pencils at Ace Hardware, and they were less than $2 each.

The last item on the list is a ‘Write’ brand pocket ledger notepad. I carry a small notebook with me every day at work, and there I usually prefer the FieldNotes brand standard series because they easily fit in either a nice, small carrying case (which is how I usually keep mine), or it can be simply shoved into your back pocket without taking up much room. But on the workbench I prefer notepads with rings that allow the pages to lay flat. The larger pad makes it easier to notate, but the pad is still small enough to not get in the way, and it easily fits in a drawer or on a toolbox shelf. The pad also includes a thick rubber band to keep it closed, or for holding a pencil or pen. And thus far, these pads have been very durable. I just about always have one of these on my workbench, in my desk, and in my handy little satchel. Cost for the pads is $8.99 each. The one issue, if you can call it an issue, is that I’ve only seen these pads sold online. Last year I purchased 10 of them at a 15% discount, kept 3, and gave the remainder as gifts at Christmas.

I own and use every item on this list, and feel fairly safe in saying that most homeowners, handymen and women, and woodworkers will find them useful. This entire list, including sales tax and shipping costs (where applicable) can be purchased for approximately $75 give or take, which I feel is important because I personally do not like people spending a lot of money on me, and I’m sure others feel the same way. Inexpensive and practical items make good gifts, and I think that this lists meets that criteria. But hey, what do I know?

One thing leads to another.

How our mind’s work sometimes can be a strange and fascinating thing. I always liken mine to a Wikipedia article, as in you check Wikipedia to see the strength of the Royal Navy in 1916, and by the time you’re finished clicking the in-article links you’ve ended up on Zooey Deschanel’s filmography page. How and why this happens is anybody’s guess, but this pretty much sums up the past weekend for me.

It all started off simply enough the weekend before. My daughter made a sign out of knotty pine, and she wanted me to stain it for her. So after prepping the project we went to the hardware store and picked up some pre-stain conditioner and ‘Early American’ Minwax stain. We got home, applied the stain, and that was that.

So during the week I noticed that one of the drawers was sticking on the replica folding campaign desk I built around 4 years ago. This was somewhat unusual, because I’ve never had an issue with it before. Though the sides felt fine, as in not tight or sticking, and nothing appeared to be binding, I nonetheless applied a thin coat of soft wax hoping that it would solve the issue, but it did not. In fact, when I fully closed the drawer it didn’t want to open at all, and actually became stuck. The reveal hadn’t changed, so it didn’t appear as if the drawer had swelled, and otherwise everything appeared normal enough.. So I cleared the desk off completely, and pulled it into the center of the room to examine the back of the desk.

The drawer backs on the hutch are not made of walnut like the rest of desk; instead I used unfinished poplar as that area wouldn’t really ever be seen. Upon inspecting the hutch I noticed that the poplar was seamlessly fit into the rabbets, meaning there was not even a hint of a gap. Of course I do my best to make sure all of the boards on my projects are sawn accurately, but in that case I can recall wanting just a sliver of a gap to allow air to move freely. I removed that panel, which is held on either side with decorative brass slotted screws, and tested the drawer; it opened and closed just as smoothly as it ever did. My guess is that the poplar backer swelled up in the relentless humidity we’ve been experiencing since July, and the drawer box, with nowhere for the air to go when the drawer was closing, became a suction cup for lack of a better term. So I removed the panels from both drawers, took them into the garage and planed off approximately 1/32nd of an inch, leaving just enough of a gap to allow air to move, but hopefully keep dust from gathering. Noticing that the little can of stain from my daughter’s sign was still sitting on the workbench, I gave both boards a quick sanding, and stained them for good measure. (I tried to take some photos of the fix but it was extremely difficult to see anything)

While the stain on the back boards was drying, I decided to give the desk a good cleaning. While I was wiping down the desk I noticed something that had bothered me ever since I completed the project; one of the dividers on the drawer that was sticking was slightly askew, almost imperceptibly, but it could be noticed when holding a square next to it. The hutch is fastened to the desktop with pan head wood screws, so I decided that while the desk was apart I may as well take care of this little nuisance, guessing that it should only take 5 minutes or so to remove the screws, use a clamp to position and hold the divider where I wanted it to be, and then drill out 2 new holes to re-fasten it back into place. An hour later it was done, and though it took a lot longer than I thought it would, I can actually see the difference, with the drawer reveal being just about perfect now.

The offending drawer closed to the point where resistance could first be felt.

In the meanwhile, I re-enter my garage to check on the stained draw backs. As I’m cleaning up the rags and other assorted mess I see a small piece of scrap oak lying on the shelf. The stain was still wet on the cloth, so I applied it to the scrap oak and I liked what I saw. Why is this important? Last year I made a small, lap-top style writing desk out of home-center red oak, finished with BLO and a coat of wax. While in general I prefer natural finishes to stain, I am also not a big fan of natural red oak. The lap desk, which I keep on the campaign desk, to me always seemed to be a little out of place, perhaps because of the natural oak finish. Since the desk was already cleared, and since I had the can of stain just sitting there doing nothing, I decided to stain the lap desk as well.

I removed the coat of wax from the lap desk and sanded it with 320 grit sandpaper. I applied the stain, let it sit for 15 minutes, and wiped off the excess. The result was underwhelming, and the change a lot more subtle than dramatic. I do like how it looks, but the “red/orange” tinge of the oak is still more prevalent than I would like, maybe because it was originally finished in BLO which does add some color…I’m not necessarily sure. Still, the lap desk appears more period correct than it had prior to the stain application, and IMO it looks more appropriate when sitting on the desk top. Because I don’t care for glossy finishes, I once again used a coat of soft wax for the final finish, applied when I got home from work today. After a rigorous buffing it has a nice, low sheen.

So, a craft sign and a stuck drawer morphed into several full-fledged projects that took up part of my Saturday evening and much of my Sunday afternoon. The good news is that this time I managed to click on all of the correct links in my mind, and everything that I did was useful and managed to turn out fairly well. And I think that this all harkens back to my last post; I was able to do what I did because at some point I consciously made sure that I had the means to do it. Having a mind that segues is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s important to be prepared take this inspiration and make it practical. And though I find the history of the Royal Navy fascinating, and Zooey Deschanel as quirky and funny as the average guy, I have a lot more important stuff going on, like fixing a stuck drawer.

The lap desk after being stained. I had hoped it would darken a bit more.
The corrected divider, the reveal difference is very subtle but still noticeable. Sorry there is no ‘before’ photo for context. Still a little dust that needs to be cleaned.
Everything back in its place.
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