I may have mentioned in a previous post that my wife and I picked up two pieces of furniture for my daughter, a chest of drawers and a bed-side table, at an antique store a few months back. The antique store is local, local enough to where it’s easy to just drop by a few times per month, and luckily we happened to wander in to see what was new and discovered the pieces there.
Firstly, the furniture isn’t “antique” in the sense that it is ancient. I would estimate both pieces were made roughly 75 years ago. I know that both the dresser and table were made in Pennsylvania because the faded makers mark is still on the back of both, I just cannot make out the name of the manufacturer. It is extremely well made stuff, solid maple casing, dovetailed drawers and case sides (the chest of drawers case sides), all poplar innards. Knowing what I know about furniture, I would estimate that a similar chest of drawers “new” would likely cost around $900-$1000, possibly more, and the table in the $350 range. We paid just around $180 total for both pieces including tax. So why is the price important? The answer to that question needs some background information.
Some time ago I wrote a post which asked the question: If some sort of theoretical disaster were approaching, and you either save the furniture you made or your woodworking tools, which would you save? Firstly, this question was meant to by hypothetical. This wasn’t meant to be a real world scenario and I wasn’t interested in the logistics of saving both.
What it all boiled down to is: Are your tools more important to you or is the furniture you build with those tools the most important thing? There was no lesson to be learned, I just wanted opinions.
Of the dozen or so people who commented, to a man they all said they would save their tools over their built furniture. And I felt the same way.
I wrote that post a few years ago, and my views regarding the subject haven’t changed too much. And in fact, I can confirm that many people share the same sentiment, because often times when entering a place such as a flea market, or antique store, vintage tools often cost more than vintage/antique furniture, even tools that look like hell compared to furniture that looks great. Of course there are exceptions, and certain pieces of furniture sell for large sums. But, more often than not, even “valuable” furniture sells at auctions for pennies on the dollar. Why?
Here is something I’ve discovered in the time since I first began to woodwork: most furniture is worthless. I don’t care if it was handcrafted, or machine made, or a little of both. I’ve found (though this is hardly a new idea) that furniture often becomes a burden to the owners, and worse than a burden to the people who inherit it. To put that in perspective, the two pieces of well-made furniture we purchased for my daughter were likely once part of a bedroom set, and the original owner, I would think, was probably proud to have them in his/her house. They were likely sold as a ‘lot’ at an estate auction or some such sale after the owners died, or sold their house, or whatever the case may be. Less than 100 years later, within a lifetime if you will, they ended up at the back of a dinky little antique store, priced to sell so the store could make room for more stuff. They were essentially given away even though their ‘intrinsic’ value was theoretically more than double the cost that I paid for them, and many times more than the dealer paid.
As I said, there are high-end antique stores that sell both expensive furniture and tools. I’m not denying that. But well-made, “middle class” furniture costs next to nothing on the pre-owned market. And I’m not referring to mass market stuff, I’m not bringing up IKEA or places like that. I’m talking about the very good quality furniture that the average person had in his or her home 75-100 years ago. While not claiming to be a furniture expert, I know more than enough to recognize a well-constructed piece of furniture, and the stuff I’ve been coming across is extremely well made, and it is selling for “cheap”.
Here is the sobering news: This isn’t a market anomaly. I’ve been in dozens of antique stores and in general you can get good quality furniture without spending much, and at auctions it can get even more crazy. And all of this makes me wonder, wonder about what I do with my time and what woodworking means to me.
For the record, I don’t make furniture to sell it, or in the hopes that it will one day become valuable in a monetary sense. But it dawned on me that there is a chance that some of the furniture I made may end up having a dollar value placed on it, not so much because it will be sold, but because that “dollar value” may decide if it is worth keeping. Or it could very well end up at an auction or an estate sale of some kind. It most likely won’t sell for much, if anything at all. Don’t misunderstand me; I make my furniture as well as I can using sound, time-tested methods. But that really doesn’t mean much with the realization that much of the furniture I have built or will build in the future will probably end up in the garbage.
The standard response I will probably get is: “Then strive to build stuff that won’t get tossed aside!!” My reply is that I already try. I can also point out that the vaunted furniture makers of yesteryear, the fellows who made some of the best furniture ever produced; the fellows that the experts tell us are far, far better than we could ever hope to be, built a lot of stuff that ended up in the garbage too, not because it was garbage, but it became garbage nonetheless.
In conclusion, I guess what I am trying to get at is the whole “make stuff that will outlast you” is all nonsense, because it will not. It is rare to find furniture more than 200 years old. Most furniture 300 years old or more is in a museum, and in some cases not just because it was well-made furniture, but because it belonged to somebody of historical importance. The stuff older than 400 years is relatively non-existent.
I know I’m going to get some responses pointing out “all of the antique furniture” that is still out there. Yeah, there is still a lot of antique furniture, a boat load of it, tons, but it is a miniscule amount when comparing it to all of the furniture made at the same time that no longer exists, or still does exist in the back of somebody’s storage basement. And all of the stuff that is still out there is worth little in a monetary sense when it really comes down to it. And here again, I am not trying to put a cash value on what I make, I’m trying to say that just because one of my grandkids may one day have a table I made sitting under a sheet in his or her attic doesn’t mean that I built a piece of furniture that “outlasted me”.
Furniture, like most things, is perishable. It is a fleeting object made by those doomed to die and fade into obscurity. Rest assured, I’m not preaching doom and gloom. I’m saying that working under the pretense of “it outlasting me” may be a losing proposition. I’m not advocating slapping together garbage out of wood and calling it furniture, but I am advocating the end of the high and mighty notion that our furniture is oh so important in the grand scheme of things.
Build furniture; build it the best way you know how, and most importantly have fun, but sooner, or later, nearly everything we make, no matter how lovely or well-made it may be, will likely end up being sold at a yard sale, or covered in dust in somebody’s attic, or gracing the bottom of a land fill. And that is a very sobering thought.
With the year coming to a close, I kept the promise I made to myself and did not purchase any new woodworking tools this past year. For the record, I have no problem with purchasing new tools, old tools, or any tools. As I’ve said many times before, whether you prefer working with five tools or fifty, that is nobody’s business but your own.
In any event, I do have a bit of guilt free woodworking money, though I didn’t really plan on spending it for a bit. Though last night I did try and was quite shocked at what I found.
To begin at the beginning, my Father-in-Law has some land in upstate Pennsylvania, and on that land is a lot of trees. From time to time those trees need to be felled, so I asked him if he wouldn’t mind bringing me home some hickory and ash the next time they happened to take them down. A few weeks back when my Father-in-Law visited he dropped off two large pieces (logs) of Hickory and a smaller (but still nice sized) ash log. I promptly split the ash log with my somewhat sharp axe (more on that in another post) and sawed in half one of the hickory logs. Because I only have limited experience in working with wood “from the log”, I was at a bit of a loss as far as how to further proceed.
Ideally, I would use a band saw to cut the logs to rough size, use a jack plane to get the boards somewhat true, then run the boards through a surface planer to get close to final dimension. Since I don’t own a bandsaw, that plan is out the window. I could go the really old school route and rough shape the boards with a hatchet, however, this past summer I dealt with tendonitis in my right arm, and it was not fun. Tendonitis cannot be cured with exercise, though stretching seems to help, and after splitting some boards with an axe for 30 minutes I fully realized that axe work is not a long-term solution for me. After doing some research, it seems that one agreed upon method is using a bow saw to kerf the wood to rough size, chop out the waste, and using a scrub plane to hog the board down to rough dimension. Why a scrub plane and not a jack plane? Apparently the “experts” say that the physical size and weight of the jack plane is not conducive to this type of work, and it will simply take too long and be too tiring to perform any meaningful work. So I turned to the idea of purchasing a scrub plane.
For those who may be unaware, a scrub plane is simply a small bench plane containing a thick iron with a heavy radius to quickly hog off material from rough sawn boards. When I first began woodworking, these planes could be found in good condition on Ebay usually for around $50, the Stanley 40 ½ being one of the more common versions. Since I hadn’t, at the time, ever planned on preparing lumber straight from the log, or rough dimensioning all of my lumber in general, a scrub plane was near the bottom on my list of necessary woodworking tools. It had never even occurred to me to buy one until now. So last night when I was doing some scrub plane research my jaw dropped at the costs.
A new scrub from Lie Nielsen or Veritas costs in the $150 range, which is what I expected. A traditional, wood-bodied scrub from ECE costs between $90-$100 depending on the source. Though I like the look of the ECE plane, and it is relatively inexpensive, they only offer it with a Chrome Vanadium iron. I am no expert on tool steel, but I know that I prefer high carbon steel to the stuff similar to A2. The high carbon steel sharpens easier, and that is all that matters to me. Anyway, before going the “new” route, I decided to give Ebay a try, and boy was I surprised at what I found.
Most of the scrub planes on Ebay (and there was not a large variety to choose from) ranged in cost from $100-$125, not including shipping. Every one of those planes was in need of restoration. The planes in better condition were at least the cost of a new tool, and in most cases much more. I did a bit more research and found that scrub planes have apparently become a hot commodity among tool collectors, though I’m not sure as to why.
So this now leaves me in a bit of a dilemma. Those of you who have read this blog in the past will know that I have nothing against tool restoration; I am in fact in the middle of restoring several tools at this very moment. Nonetheless, I feel that $100 plus is far too much money for a vintage tool that needs work in order to become usable, in particular when I can get a newer and better version for just a little more in cost. While I generally believe that the market should dictate the cost, in this case the market is wrong.
That all being said, for the time being I will likely hold off on ordering this tool until the New Year. On President’s Day weekend Lie Nielsen is having a hand tool event in Philadelphia, and I may wait until then before I make my final decision. That may mean holding off on getting my hickory logs into usable boards, but I wasn’t planning on doing anything with them until at least the end of January to begin with (I’m planning on making a handful of mallets with one log, among other things) The strange part in all of this is just how far off my estimates were. I’m generally pretty good when it comes to knowing what a tool should and shouldn’t cost. When it came to the scrub plane I was off by a lot, and most of the tools I found were at least double the cost I thought they should have been. I don’t know what changed the market, and I don’t really care. I just know that in this case a vintage tool was not the way to go, and sadly, I’ve found that this is more and more becoming a common occurrence.
The spring and summer of 2016 has led me to more vintage woodworking tools (and tools in general) than the entire past 6 years combined. Last January I made the vow to not purchase any new woodworking tools. I sort of broke that vow when I purchased a bench grinder specifically for sharpening woodworking tools, but otherwise, I haven’t made a single purchase. That being said, I’ve shared on this very blog some of the many vintage tools I’ve come across during the past months. The good news: I paid little or literally nothing for all of them; the bad news: I have a lot of old tools laying around that need a lot of work.
So this all leads to the question: Can a woodworker have too many tools?
As of today, the mindset among the most influential woodworkers seems to be that too many tools is a bad thing. The arguments are compelling: they take up space, they take up time, they decrease the chance that a woodworker will develop proficiency in using a core set of tools, and maybe most importantly, they can be expensive (in particular if you are purchasing nothing but new tools).
Too many tools can also keep a woodworker from actually making furniture. Care for both new and vintage tools can be very time consuming (this includes power tools). As of today, I have enough vintage tools in need of restoration to take me well into next spring. If I spent every Sunday restoring one of my vintage tools (that needs restoration) I estimate that the my next piece of finished furniture wouldn’t happen until sometime at the end of April, 2017.
The whole idea of woodworking is actually working wood, isn’t it? Tools can be fun, for sure, but tools are just a means to an end, right? The furniture, the end result of our toil, is why we woodwork.
So that still poses the question: Can a woodworker have too many tools?
After careful consideration, my answer is: F**K NO.
Whenever my daughter has a friend over, I eventually end up making “curlies” for them. At one time, a basic shaving from a bench plane was more than satisfactory; then one morning late summer of 2015 I took my daughter to Hearne Hardwood, where Dan Schwank of Red Rose Reproductions happened to be demonstrating some of his planes, among those was a spill plane. Though I was much more interested in the panel raising plane that I had tried (I very nearly ordered one that morning, along with a bill from a divorce attorney), my daughter was fascinated with the spills, so much so that she took them home with her and still has them today. In the meanwhile, for more than a year my daughter has been asking me to make spills for her, and though I can make something resembling one using a #4 plane, they were never nearly as nice as the spills that a dedicated plane can make.
Strangely, I learned about spill planes many years ago, because I just happened to see a television show where one was being used, though it was mounted on a bench and not a hand plane. For those who may be unaware, a spill plane is not really a woodworking tool. The sole purpose is a spill plane is to make spills (duh), which are long, tight shavings which were/are used to transfer a flame from a fireplace or other flame source. The distinctive shape of the shaving is created not only by the sharp skew of the plane iron, but also by the angle of the escapement and the shaping of the wedge. In ye olden times, items such as matches were not common place and often expensive. Spills were used to safely (relatively) light candles/lanterns/pipes etc. without sticking your hand in or too close to a roaring fire. In the modern world, where fireplaces and candles are far less common, and matches are cheap and easy to come by, the spill plane is no longer a necessary tool. Apparently, from what little research I’ve done, spills were often sold in small bundles and not necessarily made at home, though I would assume that more isolated homeowners would likely have purchased a spill plane to keep at the house rather than traveling many miles to get spills as needed. Nevertheless, last week I had a day off from work, my daughter had a friend over and I made them some curlies. My daughter, bless her, mentioned the spill plane (though she called it the ‘long curly maker’) and I decided to order it right then and there.
On the Red Rose Reproductions web page there is also an option to purchase a kit to build your own version. However, I view making tools the same way as I do cooking: just like I would never attempt to cook something until I was sure how it is supposed to taste, I wouldn’t attempt to make a tool that I’ve never used before. So I ordered the plane, it arrived a few days later (with a bouquet of spills), and I promptly began to make my own “curlies”. I was a little surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, that the spill plane does require a bit of skill to set. The depth adjustment is easy enough; it’s no different than any other wedge based plane, but adjusting the skew from side to side takes a little finesse because if it is off it will begin to take shavings which are uneven. It took around twenty minutes or so of experimentation before I was able to consistently produce spills that I was happy with. For the record, the recommended woods used for making spills are pine or cedar.
So what does a modern guy such as myself do with a spill plane? For my part, I plan on making a handful of small dovetailed boxes with sliding lids, filling them with a bundle of spills, and giving them as Christmas gifts. Yet, the truth is I purchased this tool for my daughter. We happily have a great relationship, but sooner than I would like to admit she will be a pre-teen, and eventually reach the dreaded teen years. And with the upcoming drama of young adulthood slowly but surely looming closer, I hope this Christmas season (and all of them) will be a good memory for her, spending some time with her old man (her ‘old dad’ as she calls me) in the garage making a few Christmas gifts. I plan on giving her all of my tools one day, and hopefully she will pass them along to her kids, and hopefully the future memories of the time she spent with me are some of the fondest of her life. That makes this some of the best money I’ve ever spent.
The other day I was working on the new wall cabinet I am building for my garage and it occurred to me that woodworking is dead. ‘How could I think that!?” you ask. It wasn’t hard. It was just as natural as taking a breath. ‘Woodworking is dead.” That sounds about right.
I had mentioned the other day the large pile of woodworking magazines I had in my garage. My small “keep” pile is still there, and maybe seeing it what triggered my thought. But last week I had to do some plumbing repairs at my house, and ran to Lowe’s to get what I needed. At my local Lowe’s, the magazine rack is just next to the checkout area. Five years ago, there would have been at least a dozen different woodworking magazines on that rack; I saw two, along with half a dozen how to books for shelf making.
So Lowe’s doesn’t sell woodworking magazines anymore; big deal! How about my local supermarket? They used to stock PW, Wood, Fine Woodworking, and Woodsmith. Those are all gone, part of a mythical time when there was more than one opinion in the world of woodworking. Surely my local bookstore must have woodworking magazines? It doesn’t. In fact, it doesn’t even have garbage woodworking books with titles like Woodworking for Dummies.
And it isn’t just the dearth of magazines that is concerning. It is the fact that woodworking is far less visible than it was not so long ago. During the past summer, I took a step back from woodworking, not in any academic sense; I wasn’t planning on conducting an experiment. I did it just because summer is not a time of year in which I like to woodwork much. In taking that step back, I discovered that woodworking is not only way out of the mainstream, it is not even a trickle into a pond, and that wasn’t always the case. For example, in 2016 I happened to notice there was not one woodworking show-that I saw-in this region of the country. That may not mean much in the middle of Wyoming, but in S.E. Pennsylvania, with its population of nearly 7 million, that says something; it says a lot; it speaks volumes.
In 2015 there were at least two shows because I went to both.
In 2016, zero point zero.
This could be a culling of the herd and nothing more. Maybe woodworking had a lot of fat that needed to be trimmed. Or maybe the herd is sick, and dying.
And here is the problem, as I perceive it: for most people, WOODWORKING IS A HOBBY, it is not a way of life, or a culture, or a religion, or a political system. That isn’t to say that it shouldn’t be taken seriously by those who practice the hobby. I needn’t remind anybody that everybody’s goal should always be to put forth their best effort no matter what the endeavor. I’m not telling anybody how and why to woodwork. What I am saying is that people who make tools, and write books, and produce magazines, and make furniture are professionals, and to try to emulate them is a losing proposition simply because they get paid to do it and the vast majority of the rest of us do not. The mindset is totally different and forever will be.
I know I’ve gone over this topic numerous times, but on this occasion things have changed a little, and not for the better. Because this time woodworking has already been pushed back into obscurity. Woodworking is now a few thousand half-assed YouTube videos. Woodworking is now an internet search that turns up a whole lot of nothing. Woodworking is now a stern lecture from elders who are not “eld”. Woodworking is now a clique, and it isn’t the “cool” clique. It is the geeky, zit faced clique that hides in the AV closet and thinks that deep down they are the cool kids, only to become the very thing they hated.
Woodworking messed up, big time, when it stopped telling people how to build and started telling them what to think. That philosophy may work on an 18-year-old little pissant who doesn’t know his ass from second base going to a 50k per year liberal arts college only because his parents have their shit together enough to send him there in the first place. But, in general, it doesn’t work with normal, well-adjusted, intelligent adults.
So what now? Nothing. I’m not offering a solution because woodworking is already FUBAR, unless you prefer your weekend hobby seasoned with some self-righteous posturing and pseudo-intellectual philosophy lessons then things are just fine and dandy. In that case you likely won’t be reading this post anyway.
But for the rest of us the only advice I have is to possibly start over, maybe get yourself a book on constructing birdhouses, or watch some reruns of The New Yankee Workshop. Maybe birdhouses and Norm aren’t your idea of woodworking, but neither is anything else currently being shoved down our throats, and I can guarantee you this: it is the path of least pretention.
I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I prefer comments pertaining to the blog to be made in the comment section of the blog itself. I fully understand that some people would prefer to send an email rather than comment publicly. Though do I think that the blog and its readers would benefit from a new or different viewpoint.
In any event, if you do feel the need to send me an email rather than comment, please send that email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will do my best to answer promptly.
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.