The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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A little bit jumpy.

Before I get into the topic of this post, I would like to preface it by saying that I have been working with and around machinery for most of my adult life. That list includes construction equipment, printing presses, pipe benders, wire pulling machines, fork lifts and earth movers. Of course this list also includes power tools for woodworking. All of the equipment I listed could and can seriously injure or even kill.

Lately, while woodworking, I have been exclusively using hand tools. This has not been a philosophical decision. The projects I have been working on are generally small, and because my daughter has been with me ( I will not use a power tool with her in the vicinity), and because I could just as easily crosscut a few boards by hand, I have been avoiding the table saw. But over the past weekend I broke out the table saw for the first time in quite a while, and truth be told it may be a long while before I break it out again.

Last year my father-in-law brought me some hickory and ash logs from his property in upstate Pennsylvania, so I split them into smaller pieces and set them aside to dry. When inspecting them on Saturday I deemed them dry enough to use, so I decided to further prep the wood (namely the hickory) into smaller billets to be used as handle stock for some antique farm and logging tools that I have been attempting to restore. This prep work consisted of a lot of sawing and hatchet work, and I don’t recommend it if you are working under any kind of time frame because it is a long and arduous process despite what anybody will tell you. Regardless. I ended up with four “sticks” roughly 2 ½ feet long and 2 or so inches square. I planed them down mainly to get a flat reference face (this wood will be shaped into contoured handles, so there is no need to start off with a perfectly square board), and rather than spending another hour rip sawing and cross cutting, I decided to use the table saw to get all of the wood to uniform size. That is when things got weird.

The first thing I wanted to do was cross cut the boards to uniform width. I have an Osborne EB-3 miter gauge, which I feel is a top of the line product, and it has never given me any real trouble. It is accurate, and safe, and I feel comfortable using it. The blade on the saw is new and sharp. So I set the blade height, and decided on an off-cut of around 2 inches just to be sure to remove any funky end wood. So I began a process I have completed thousands of times…My first off cut shot across my garage like a rifle shot. I turned off the saw, checked the blade height-which was right where it is supposed to be-and got back to work. The second off cut, which was the other side of the same board, did not shoot across the garage again, but it wanted to. Instead, it seemed to “tug” the board into the blade slightly, and I believe the only thing that kept the board from being pulled laterally any further was the fact that my miter gauge is lined with 60 grit sand paper just for the purpose of keeping the wood from shifting. At this point, I unplug the saw and check the blade-it is tight and sharp; I check the miter gauge and it is 90 degrees to the blade (not that it should have mattered in the least but I checked anyway) I even checked the voltage at the receptacle that the saw is plugged into-121 volts. So I chalked up the missile launches to the dense hickory board and began again.
The next 3 boards yielded generally the same results: flying wood, pulling boards, and overall chaos. After the boards were sawn to length I was planning on ripping them to width as well, but by then I was becoming worried. I have always had a very healthy respect for all machinery and I am always very cautious when using it, because I’ve witnessed several gory incidents as well as surviving a few near-misses myself. But this was the first time that I can ever recall being afraid to use a table saw.

At this point I decided on some more detective work. I went back to the blade, which is a brand new 40t combination blade, a Diablo from the Depot. While I don’t consider the Diablo blades anything special, I have used them in the past many times without incident. Nevertheless I doublechecked it, and found no wobble, the teeth were nice and sharp, and as I said before, the height was set where I always set it, with the gullets approximately 1/8 of an inch above the cut. Hickory is a hard wood, very hard, so I decided to cross cut a piece of scrap pine to see the results, and while it did not shoot across the room or bog, something definitely did not feel quite right. So I re-checked the Hickory; there were no wild grain patterns or large checks, and while the boards likely have more moisture content than a kiln dried board you may find in a lumber yard or home center, they were definitely not openly wet or even damp.

However, one area of concern did crop up, and that was the throat plate on my table saw. The plate is wider than it should be, and perhaps an offcut just a few inches long will dip, even slightly, due to lack of support, causing it to touch the revolving blade, possibly shooting it back? I have always wanted to make or purchase a zero clearance throat plate, but because I use the table saw so little I haven’t considered it much lately. So to test this theory out I cross cut a scrap board so that much of the off-cut would be supported by the table and the results were improved, though I still seemed to feel a slight tug that I had honestly never noticed before until that day.

Here’s the thing, not too long ago I came to the conclusion that I am probably going to sell my table saw. I don’t use it much, but more importantly it takes up a lot of space. At the same time a table saw can be a useful tool to have around. I know that I can work without it, but I also know that there are times it will be greatly missed, in particular on those days when I need to cut a few dozen dados. I’m not sold on the notion of “all handwork, all the time.” Once again, I have nothing against it, I just don’t have the free time for it; I woodwork for fun, not as a crusade. Yet, I haven’t really used the table saw in earnest this entire year, and we are heading into September. Either way, for the first time in my life I did not feel comfortable using a familiar tool. It’s worth the $25 investment to add a zero-clearance throat plate, but that may not be the issue, and that issue may be a problem with the saw that I cannot necessarily identify without a true expert checking it out for me.

If I add a new throat plate and I still don’t notice a difference I can only see two options: sell the saw and put the money toward a band-saw, or sell the saw and put the money towards a Sawstop Saw. For the record, this is not a commercial for Sawstop. I’ve used a Sawstop saw a handful of times and I think highly of them. I don’t know if they do any more to stop kickback on crosscuts than any other saw will, but I do know that if that kick back causes my hand to slip, or jerk, or what have you, and my hand happens to touch the blade in doing so, I have a far better chance of not sustaining a serious injury. Yet, even if I sell my saw and get top dollar for it, the money raised would still be less than half of what I need. I can get a nice bandsaw for half the cost of a Sawstop, and bandsaws, in my opinion, are a far safer option, perhaps the safest option of all when it comes to sawing wood with a motor.

When it comes down to it, I’m not a kid anymore, and I’m not a professional woodworker. Maybe my months long lay-off from the table saw has me somewhat gun shy. Maybe my reflexes aren’t what they used to be, and I have definitely had some issues with my hands and fingers, so maybe that is the problem. Whatever the case may be, I was honestly rattled this past weekend, and that is no way to woodwork, and until I figure it out, the power switch to that table saw is remaining in the “off” position.

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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.

Adult Language, Mild Violence, Partial Nudity…

I was a little hesitant to write this post, not because of the content, or because it’s a rant of any kind, but because of the photo I plan on attaching. Yesterday afternoon I had a table saw accident, probably the worst woodworking accident of my career. Fortunately the injury is nothing serious and doesn’t even rank in my top fifty personal injuries list. But it could have been much worse. Before I scare any women and children with a picture of me shirtless, I want you all to reserve judgement for just this once. Please keep in mind that this photo isn’t of the 25 year-old, 180lb version of myself who lifted weights and played sports and rode a bike everyday. This photo is the nearly 40 year-old, 197lb version of me who has a bad back and hasn’t lifted weights in ten years. But in an effort to be honest and show what happened I figure the photograph is somewhat of a requirement.

I’ve written several posts about the dangers of a table saw. I’ve worked on heavy machinery and electrical equipment and have used power tools for my entire adult life, I’m no prude and I accept those dangers willingly. The table saw is no exception to that list. That, for no other reason, is why I supported Sawstop Legislation. Even though flesh-detection technology wouldn’t have helped me much yesterday, the way I look at it table saws can use all of the safety measures we can get on them. Yesterday afternoon I was doing everything correctly for the most part. The saw blade was a hair too high probably. I was sawing a piece of 1/4″ thick plywood. The blade was sticking out of the table probably around 1 1/4″. I generally follow the rule of having the blade extend above the piece being sawed so the gullets of the blade are just higher than the board. I did not have the guard on. I was using the rip fence and a push stick, more to keep the thin stock from rising rather than pushing it through the cut. The blade is razor sharp, actually brand new and just installed, I was wearing safety glasses and my body was to the right of the blade, not behind it. I fed the board through at a normal rate of feed when I hit a knot in the plywood which also must have had a void in it because the piece exploded off of the sheet and literally flung sideways into my stomach. Had it hit me in the ribs, and had it been a heavier/thicker board my injury would have been much worse. With that being said, I don’t think a heavier board would have “exploded” the way it did. My conclusion is that it was simply a junk piece of plywood. If anything that was my biggest mistake, the terrible sheet of plywood I was using.

When it happened I cursed a little, checked myself to make sure everything was still there, and got back to work. All in all I like to call it an accident. Accidents happen, all the time. It can be just as dangerous to walk down the street, or get into a car, or play a game of pickup basketball than it can be woodworking. And that is why I still take so much offense to those who feel the need to call people stupid when they’ve had serious table saw injuries. I would bet that there are woodworking injuries that are nothing more than the result of carelessness, and I would also bet that some woodworking injuries are just dumb luck. So to make a general statement that if you get hurt woodworking you must be stupid is just about the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, and shows a lack of experience in any type of machinery use. The worst thing about it is that I’ve seen more than my fair share of woodworking writers make that same statement, although they managed to say it without directly saying it. Not to get pissy, but if you want to call me stupid, wait til we’re face to face before you do it. And I don’t mean anybody who subscribes to this blog, that comment has a specific audience in mind.

So last night, roughly 10 hours after the accident happened, I took a photo of it. The photo doesn’t give you the whole experience but you at least get an idea. The bruise widened and is now several different, but lovely colors. So here it is. I don’t want to hide behind my mistakes, or accidents, so I think it’s best to just show them and learn from them. If anything else, I hope it makes people aware of just how careful you need to be when operating a table saw.

cut me some slack, I'm not buff anymore.

cut me some slack, I’m not buff anymore.

Dovetails? I don’t need no stinking dovetails.

The mess

The mess

IMG_1057[1]
Finished table

Finished table

Finsihed drawer box

Finsihed drawer box

Cut nails

Cut nails

Who needs dovetails?

Who needs dovetails?

IMG_1053[1]

With a semi-rare full weekend off I thought it would be a good time to get my drawers dovetailed and installed and finally get those two damn tables ready to have the finish applied. Saturday didn’t turn out so hot. The weather was beautiful, but my wife and I had a few errands to run in the morning and when we finally did return home I had some electrical work to do around the house that I’ve been meaning to get around to since Christmas, mainly a new wall timer for our outside lights and new USB chargers/receptacles for the bedroom. I also picked up a new blade for my table saw and got that into place. So this morning I was poised to get to some woodworking.

After getting some pasta sauce on the range (I make mine from scratch..I am half-Italian..Ay O!) I headed into the garage and got started. Last time in I had already cut the drawer stock to size so all I needed to do was run the grooves for the drawer bottom and run the dado for the drawer back. That sounds and should have been easy..but I tanked it. I finished the grooves quickly and painlessly enough, it was the dado that gave me the problems. I had planned on making the drawers the same way I did for my last table, dovetailed in the front and a dado in the back. I turned off my brain, got out the miter gauge, and started making my dado, no lay-out mind you, just nice and willy nilly. So of course I had cut one of the dados on the wrong side. I thought for a moment about what I should do other than go on a murderous rampage and destroy everything in my garage. After my moment of rage passed, I went inside and stirred the sauce, checked the sky for DEA helicopters (movie reference) and went back into the garage. I decided to make the drawers shorter by cutting off the offending dados, and rather than dovetail them I would break out the cut nails I had just ordered in and nail the drawers together.

I really enjoy cutting dovetails, but I had already burned an hour and I was looking for an excuse to use my new cut nails. I had to do a little resizing of the stock first, and then I used a marking gauge to mark a nail line. Feeling all awash in old school hand tool hippie love, I drilled the pilot holes with my new hand drill, applied a little glue, and nailed the drawer side to the drawer front. The cut nails did the job nicely so I went to recut the drawer bottom, which also had to be resized. I am using rather crappy 1/4″ oak plywood for the bottoms and it took me around 20 minutes to find two decent pieces at my nearest Lowes. I cut the first piece to width and went to cut it to length when I hit a knot in the plywood that sent a sizeable piece flying into my stomach at somewhere near the speed of light. Luckily my rock hard abs are covered with a thin layer of something that isn’t muscle. The impact left a rather cool looking lengthwise bruise roughly 1/4″ thick. Damn tablesaws! I don’t know why I use one … Anyway, since one piece of the drawer bottom stock was destroyed I knew then and there that I wouldn’t be finishing both drawers today. So I cut a new drawer bottom and finished up the first drawer. Using the cut nails was fun and they made quick work of making a drawer. I had only one minor split and that was because the board already had a minor split in it.

I cut the cleats and drawer stop with my carcase saw and also the top runners to keep the drawer from tipping. I made a ton of shavings getting them to fit just right, and when they did I installed the drawer front on the drawer box. I used my little Hock block plane to do some final trimming on the drawer and the runners and of course took a nice chunk out of my knuckle. I got my hand cleaned up and the garage cleaned up shortly after. Table one is ready to go. I didn’t attach the top yet, I want to wax all of the drawer runners and kickers first. It was a pretty good yet dangerous day in the shop for me. Luckily my wife and little girl weren’t home to hear some of my colorful language. Speaking of my lovely wife, I am hoping she volunteers to apply the finish to the first table while I’m building the drawer for the second one next weekend. I know one thing, these two tables are starting to piss me off.

Sawstop legislation revisited.

Last night I was on the web doing a little online tool browsing and checking out a few woodworking websites and came upon a few older discussions concerning “Sawstop” legislation and its fairly recent demise. I had gotten into some pretty heated debates over the topic last year, well at least as heated as a debate can be when it takes place over the internet and not face to face. Since the legislation failed to pass I’ve heard little about it since and I can honestly say that I’m glad of that fact. But I am still upset over the issue, and I don’t mean the verdict. Truth be told I could care less that the legislation failed. But what did bother me and what I still can’t come to terms with is why the woodworking editors, or writers, or journalists, or whatever they are calling themselves these days, had such a problem with the proposed bill.

I heard the standard answer many times: Sawstop legislation will create a monopoly and the cost of table saws will go up so dramatically that people won’t be able to afford them anymore and it will ruin woodworking forever. Now, almost any person with half a brain will tell you that this is nothing more than the silliest form of a scare tactic. Using this logic you can also assume that if the Sawstop Legislation had passed then it’s possible that no piece of furniture may ever be made in the United States ever again. A lawyer or scholar may refer to this as Reductio Ad Absurdum, meaning a person takes any statement, law, or debate point that they don’t agree with and concludes that it will result in an extreme worst case scenario. It’s almost like a child saying that he doesn’t want to take a bath because if the water gets too cold he could catch pneumonia and die, or he doesn’t want to get his hair cut because if the barber slips he may kill him with the scissors. In any case the statement was absolutely ridiculous because it was and is completely unfounded. I’ve seen it written many times in many forms in and on just about every woodworking magazine and its corresponding web page, but I’ve not seen any…ANY numbers or proof of any kind to back the statement up. So then, is it okay to put that statement out as just the journalist’s opinion? I guess so, but it was never presented that way, not that I’ve seen.

Before I go on I want to point out that I know that some of the people who read this blog may have agreed with the decision. I also want to point out that I am not writing this to defend Sawstop. I don’t own any Sawstop products personally. At this point in my life I probably couldn’t afford to own a Sawstop table saw. I have nothing against them. If somebody offered to give me a Sawstop saw tomorrow I would happily accept it, the same way I would happily accept a free Delta Unisaw. I also want to point out that I have nothing against the handling of the legislation by the California state government. It was handled democratically, a decision was made by the state elected officials and I stand by it. I am not an anti-government nutbag who fears any form of government regulation. The way I see it is: use of the table saw results in thousands of accidents and injuries every year, and somebody in government felt the need to investigate table saw usage and found that there may be a need for some new form of safety or protective device that could help to lessen those injuries and the severity of them. I think they call that concern for the safety and well-being of the constituency. I can recall somewhere that being part of the oath of office, but I could be wrong. The California State Legislature felt that the current protective measures being offered are enough and that the consumer should be able to choose whether or not he wants Sawstop technology on his table saw. That is Democracy in action. With that being said, I’m also not here to defend everything that the government does. There are of course many problems that need to be fixed: corruption, greed, infighting, and illegal lobbying; I could go on and on. What I am saying is that you cannot assume that because some members of government are corrupt that all government legislation is corrupt. Well, maybe you can assume but it’s probably not a good idea not to do it.

Here we are six months after the legislation was shot down and I’ve yet to find an answer on why much of the woodworking magazine community was so dead set against it. Was it in defense of the quality of Ryobi Tools, which was the subject of a lawsuit involving a table saw accident? I’ll be forthright and say that I own a Ryobi surface planer and router. They are decent tools for the cost. I can also say that I’ve done both woodworking and carpentry on Ryobi table saws and I wasn’t very impressed with them. In fact, I would go as far to say that I would rather work completely by hand than use a Ryobi table saw again, and that is just my own personal opinion and view on their saw(s) as a woodworking tool. I would make an even bolder statement and say that IF the only table saw offered on the market was made by Ryobi then THAT could possibly ruin woodworking. Does that statement sound a little ridiculous? Check out the bold statement at the beginning of the blog before you answer that question.

So where does this leave me as a woodworker? Nowhere, the same place I was a year ago I guess, but a little less naïve when it comes to woodworking magazines. Because through all of the conjecture, all of the debate, as far as I can tell only two magazines of all of the woodworking magazines I’ve seen stayed out of the argument, and they also happen to be two magazines that do not accept advertising. Do I sound like a conspiracy theorist that is distrustful of woodworking magazines? Before you answer that question check out the bold statement at the beginning of the blog and tell me who is more paranoid, and who actually has a little proof to back their statement up. As I said, every woodworking magazine that I’ve read, that also included paid advertisements in its pages, had an editorial written both in print and on the web that denounced the proposed legislation. I’m not saying all woodworking magazines that take advertisements, I don’t know because I don’t read them all, but at least four of them did. I won’t name them, but you can trust me that I am telling the truth.

Why then? Why the denouncements? Were they trying to save woodworkers money? HAH! Pull the other leg it plays Fur Elise. Was it in defense of the Power Tool Institute, an organization that cares so much about woodworkers that I had never even heard of them until the legislation was proposed, and I sell power tools for a living! Who benefitted from keeping power tool manufacturers from making safer and better tools? Wasn’t me. I will say one thing in defense of Sawstop; I’ve used their saw and it was a great tool. I can’t say that about Ryobi’s table saws. Sorry to all of you Ryobi owners out there, I’m not running you down or your tools. Use whatever makes you happy and whatever you can afford. I’m only bringing up Ryobi because the case that started all of this drama involved a Ryobi saw and the Ryobi Corporation was a big opponent of the legislation. I simply find it hard to believe so many woodworkers felt that the government was out to get them, and that a corporation and their lawyers were looking out for their best interests?!? Call me an enemy of capitalism and the free market or a commie, socialist dog but I stand by my beliefs. We are in an era with metric tons of living proof just at the end of our fingertips showing the amount of corruption, graft, corner-cutting, and downright fraud committed by corporations against consumers, yet we were told by our heroic editors of several woodworking magazines that the government was out to get us through over regulation and that the only people who hurt themselves on table saws were buffoons who got what was coming to them because they didn’t put the riving knife in place. A lot of woodworkers bought it, at least from what I saw on the forums. We were told by magazine editors and writers that Sawstop saws were dangerous because they were so safe that they induced carelessness on the part of the user??? WHAT!? Of course there were again no, none, zippo, zilch, nada, zero numbers or proof to back that ridiculous statement…yet it was made more than once. That’s like saying that people who wear seatbelts are more likely to drive like maniacs. I have to question that line of thinking as a human freaking being who knows a little about logic. Maybe I’m a fucking thug who looks like a fucking thug but I’m not stupid.

That’s where I stand. That’s why I feel the need to question the statements of woodworking editors and writers from time to time. That’s why they sometimes don’t care for me too much. The problem with me is that I do happen to care. I care that woodworkers were told that buying a safer table saw was another nail in the coffin of hobby woodworking. I care that people who got hurt on table saws were called stupid by other woodworkers, some of them professionals nonetheless. I care that many of the woodworking magazines I’ve read contain nothing but biased advertisements and reviews for tools and other woodworking equipment, at least in my opinion. Yet we’re supposed to trust everything they say and take all of it at face value. Like I said, maybe I’m nothing more than a thug who looks like a thug, but I ain’t stupid.

In the Garage

In the movie Gran Torino, one of the most memorable scenes for me was when Clint Eastwood first introduced his young neighbor to his garage. The young boy is in awe of the rows of tools, neatly stored along the wall, and the bins of hardware, lubricants, and other odds and ends every well equiped garage should have. That scene stuck with me because in my mind’s eye it was what a “man’s” garage should look like, and it is in many ways what my garage is like now. It wasn’t always that way, it took years to become what it is. Clint even points that out to the kid in the movie when he asks where all of the “stuff” came from. Growing up we didn’t even have a garage. I lived in a small row-house not too far from Downtown Philly (or Center City) as we called it. My house didn’t even have room for a workshop. What it did have was a dirt floor basement where our furnace and water heater were located, along with a coal bin, and our clothes washer. My dad had set a small area aside in the back of the basement where he kept a work table, some saw horses, and his tools, and I later on kept my weight bench and heavy bag. You can imagine it was pretty cramped. But, as a boy, something always drew me towards that dingy, dark little area of my house.

My dad had few true woodworking tools, which is maybe one of the reasons I didn’t take up woodworking until I was an adult. He did have some carpentry tools: a few hand saws, an old jack plane (not that I knew what it was called then), an eggbeater drill and corded drill, some clamps, a few hammers, a circular saw, some chisels, a tape measure and a folding rule, a small and large level, and an old wooden toolbox and newer metal one. He also had a set of wrenches and a ratchet and socket set that he used at work as well as for minor auto maintenance. And he had a set of tools for hanging drywall, which he did on the side sometimes to earn extra money. Above his bench he had the ubiquitous row of jars which held assorted hardware: nails, screws, nuts, bolts, and washers. The hardware was what first attracted me as a kid, probably because it was shiny. Sometimes I would go into the basement and mess around with the hardware, or maybe nail a few 2×4 scrap boards together, and later on screw them together when I was strong enough. If my dad heard me down there, which he usually did, he would yell at me to “get upstairs”. My dad had a loud voice, then and now, and I usually would do what he said. But the seed had been planted.

As I said before, my garage began to take it’s shape slowly. I would do projects and end up with extra hardware. Need to replace a plumbing valve? Next thing you know you have solder, pipe dope, plumbers putty, and a mapp gas torch, along with a gaggle of assorted plumbing fittings. Framing out a new wall? Now you have a box of framing nails, wood glue, a hand saw, a framing hammer, and of course a framing square. You’re going to drywall that wall? You have drywall screws, a set of drywall knives up to 10″, a screw gun, and a trough. The radiator hose on your wife’s car has a leak? Now you have extra hose clamps laying around. The spring latch on the hood of your truck broke? Now you have a box of springs. This isn’t even counting the set of mechanical tools I had from my last job, or my electrical tools from when I was a field electrician, or the hundreds of electrical parts and fittings I still have, or my carpentry tools that I used as an electrician and around the house. Now, of course, there are woodworking tools, a table saw, and a workbench as well. Little did I know, but my garage was becoming what my idea of what a garage should be and look like. I honestly didn’t know it until one day my father-in-law had stopped by and asked me if I had a can of silicone lubricant. I keep all of my cleaners and lubricants on two racks I made in the back corner of my garage. I told him where to find it. When he returned with it he asked, “Is there anything you don’t have in there??” I don’t ever recall trying to make it become what it is, but I think that subconciously maybe that was the goal I was striving for, because it’s what I have…not that I’m complaining.

Now my garage is my woodworking shop as well. I allow my little girl to come in with me as long as I’m not running the table saw. She is of course drawn to the hardware, like I was when I was little. I keep all of my hardware in plastic storage containers that look like briefcases with dividers. I also have quite a few PVC fittings: couplings, sweeps, and adaptors that she likes to piece together in strange designs and then send marbles racing through. I have a stool at my workbench that she can sit at and nail finish nails into some scrap wood with a small wooden mallet. I never discourage her, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have to yell at her sometimes for doing what she shouldn’t be doing. All little kids are going to try to do something ill advised from time to time. My job is to make sure that she doesn’t get hurt attempting it. But I think it’s important for her to feel comfortable in a shop environment, around tools, and working with her hands. I only wish I had more encouragement when I was her age.

I make my living in tools and hardware. I think the course was laid many years ago in a dingy corner in the basement of the house I grew up in. I hate to use the word expert, but I probably know more about electrical hardware and fittings than most people in the entire country. I’m also not too shabby when it comes to tools. It’s strange and funny how things turn out, and how seemingly minor parts of your childhood can leave such a lasting influence. I’m 39 years old now, doing what I belong doing, earning my living through tools and hardware, woodworking for fun, and trying to show my little girl that she can be at ease around such things, even though she is “just a girl”. I keep my garage as neat and organized as I possibly can for that reason, among others. Somehow I equate having a well organized garage, with hardware in bins, saws in racks, woodworking tools organized and sharp, cleaners and towels and motor oil and washer fluid and brake fluid and wrenches and hammers and scrap wood and a project on the workbench and paintbrushes and paint and stains and shelves and power tools and handplanes and toolboxes and tool totes and boards and scrap 2×4’s…..somehow I equate all of that with being a good man and a good father. I think I’m right; I kind of hope I am.

Is woodworking a safe hobby?

I’ve had a some injuries while woodworking: a few cuts, one fairly serious, some bruises, a tweaked back, fortunately nothing severe. I am a somewhat cautious fellow. I keep my eye on safety statistics from time to time. I was once the shift shop steward at my prior job and kept close tabs on when, where, and how accidents occurred. I don’t consider myself reckless. But, even with all of my efforts, I’ve found that no matter how cautious I am there is one variable in woodworking that I will never be able to make safer: My wife.

After I got married I stopped spending my weekends in the local pub, watching football, shooting pool, and drinking beer. I figured, quite sensibly, that married men shouldn’t spend their entire Saturday night and Sunday afternoon in a bar. I even cut back on my music gigs; I had been a part-time professional musician for around 10 years. But being a man who was active, a little creative, and who liked to work, I needed something to do. There was the lawn, home improvements, of course reading and exercise, but none of these things appealed to my creative side. So I was a bit lucky that after my daughter was born, woodworking sort of fell into my lap. After completing my first project I figured that I found a winner. Woodworking has quite a few upsides for me: I’m working with my hands, I’m being creative, I’m making furniture that is useful, and maybe most importantly I’m working in a shop that’s 30 feet from the livingroom. It was like finding the Holy Grail. But then I soon found that not all was perfect in paradise.

First time I really took notice was one night after dinner I went down to the shop(garage) for a few hours to do some sharpening and organizing. When returning to the livingroom my wife gave me the classic “I didn’t know you were home.” You could cut the sarcasm with a knife. I didn’t say anything. I just got myself cleaned up and spent the rest of the evening with my family. The comments became more frequent as my time spent in the shop grew. Working on projects is difficult enough for a weekend warrior like myself, but when your wife resents anytime spent woodworking, finishing projects can become impossible.  I am in my third year of woodworking and I have yet to find a happy medium. I work at least 7am-5pm everyday, I work every other Saturday, many times I work two or three weekends in a row. Add up commuting, family time, sleeping, and just running a house and that leaves precious little time for my hobby. Even as I type this every key stroke may be arming a bomb. I don’t know what to do. Somebody once said that if you have to ask the question you already know the answer. Well, I have to ask the question but I don’t know the answer. I don’t have a clue.

I do have one answer actually, but I don’t like it. And that answer is that there is no answer. I’m not a psychologist; I can’t say why my wife sometimes gets angry at me when I woodwork, or I read about woodworking, or when I type entries into this blog. One day, sometime in January, I nearly sold my tools and gave up woodworking completely; I had been frustrated working in the small space I was in, and being that it was winter I couldn’t just take it outside, and my wife was also mad that I had been spending “too much time in the garage.” So I figured that instead of having a pretty decent set of woodworking tools in the garage going unused, and a resentful wife in the livingroom, I would sell the tools and put some cash in my pocket and maybe have a happier wife. I even put an ad on the internet. So it should have come as no surprise that my wife got mad at me. “I can’t believe you want to do this!” “You are getting so good!” “You’re just going to give up after how far you’ve come!” It was a Saturday afternoon I remember, so I asked her why she had gotten mad at me for spending time in the shop the night before(After I had finished woodworking  that night I took a shower and asked my wife if any good movies were coming on. She promptly told me that those were the first words I had said to her in hours and then stormed off to bed.) She told me that she wasn’t mad. I didn’t say anything. But, in the least, if anybody tells me I’m crazy, and that my wife isn’t, I will have this blog entry to fall back on. That’s all I have. There is nothing more to say. I can hear my wife’s footsteps coming down the hall right now…

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