A Century in the Making

This evening’s dinner-time conversation started with my wife asking me a seemingly innocuous question. “Did you get a run in today?” A reasonable question; I took my gym bag with me this morning with the hope that I might get some time on the treadmill this afternoon.

“No, not today,” I answered, thinking she’d respond with sympathy. Yesterday’s workout completely changed the course of my day, leaving me relaxed and engaged, so she’s pretty supportive of my running habit.

“Good. You can walk the dog tonight” was her answer. It’d been one of those days.

Dinner eaten, dishes washed, Jack is reaching the limit of his self-control, so out the door we went for our typical half-mile trek through our neighborhood.

Just past the half-way point, I notice the mass-produced dresser that some renter left on the corner as they moved out. It’s been sitting there for over a week, the particle board soaking in the rain, the once-trendy drawer fronts with their integral drawer pulls routed into the faces now looking dated and crude.

Our neighborhood isn’t all rental houses, but we’ve lost a lot of ground in the battle for home ownership, just like the rest of America.

I don’t know very many of my neighbors – not nearly as many as I should having lived here for fifteen years – but the neighbors I know are good people: talented and hard-working.

Down the road a few blocks is Mark, who replaced our privacy fence about eight years ago. Mark didn’t just tack up a bunch of dimensional lumber straight off the truck; his work is furniture-grade. Tonight as I walk past his house, I wave to Mark as Jack barks at his three dogs.

Right behind us is Matt, the general contractor I wouldn’t hesitate to call on if we had a project I couldn’t handle on my own. Bonny and I went to high school with Matt; he has a wicked sense of humor, a fierce loyalty to friends, and a commitment to quality.

Next door to us is Mike, the tree trimmer who deftly removed the damaged and diseased elm from our back yard last fall. His crew was fast and efficient, and they left a clean job site. I didn’t get any good-neighbor discount (nor did I ask for one), just a competitive bid and a handshake. With the tree gone, we could get a start on our current project, a flagstone patio.

There’s also Leo across the street. If I remember correctly, he owns a skid steer loader, and I’d love to get to know him better, maybe sit down with a few beers and find out what makes him tick.

If I were to guess, there’s something about this hundred-year-old neighborhood that drew all of us: the chance to be a part of something that lasts, something that survives; to be stewards of these modest homes; to leave our marks.

With a little luck and a lot of hard work, we’ll leave these homes in better shape than we found them.

Hey, Rake!

I left home yesterday for a two-week business trip, and I’m already missing my workshop. (Okay, so I’m missing my wife and kids, too!) Maybe this is a chance to update the blog with some recent work.

With a functional (if not yet painted) tool chest, it was time to pick back up on a neglected project: my hay rake table. I know, I started this project well over a year ago. Let’s just say the cobbler’s children may finally get new shoes this fall.

The hay rake stretchers came together relatively easily. I was pleased with the way the legs came together with the stretchers.

The base is now nearly complete. I need to complete the scroll detail at the ends of the top bars that support the tabletop, and join those to the legs.

I’m tempted to embellish these scrolls with more detailed spiral carvings, since they already suggest the volutes of an Ionic column. I’m really torn here: I’d been looking forward to adding carving to my work, and the minimal carving to define the scroll went very quickly. I worry a bit that an overtly Classical reference would seem a little out of place on an Arts and Crafts piece. It could work, especially in the context of the volutes on a Windsor chair.

What do you think? Stop with the scrolls as they are, or continue to carve a more intricate volute?

It’s a mystery. At least, I like to think of it that way.

Last week I spent my mornings dovetailing the pieces for the large sliding till in my tool chest. It’d been slow-going, partly because I overslept one day, and partly because I’d been experimenting with process. Friday morning, I reached the point of dry-fitting the side pieces.

A fitting end to all that sawing.

A fitting end to all that sawing.

It was a bittersweet moment, because it was the first time I couldn’t look down and see all of my tools. That’s really the only downside of the tool chest: I don’t have everything in plain sight. No, it’s not a deal-killer, and it certainly beats coming into the workshop to find the array of tools that have fallen off shelves to the concrete floor, or planes that have formed sudden blooms of rust.

So after giving myself about 30 seconds to acknowledge this transition to layered storage, I embraced it. I started thinking about how many tools the chest could hold once I finished the tills, and the sense of discovery I could channel each time I lift the lid on this chest.

I started thinking of it not simply as a tool chest, but as a treasure chest. I try to see it through my son’s eyes, maybe wandering into the workshop on a quiet afternoon, opening the chest, sliding the tills back and forth, seeing how many of the tools I can name, admiring their form, imagining their function.

Fill 'er up, son.

Fill ‘er up, son.

It’s not so hard to imagine. As a kid, I remember being fascinated by my grandfather’s garage, his den where he practiced woodcarving and sharpening, even the organizer he kept on his chest of drawers, filled with the things he took out of his pockets at the end of the day. I was convinced that he could make or fix just about anything. After he died, I brought home some of his tools, hoping to instill that same spirit in my own kids.

I want to walk into the workshop each morning with that sense of wonder and excitement – beginner’s mind, if you will. It feels like I’m on the right track.

Here’s a short story of dovetailing conversion.

Recognizing that discussions of cutting dovetails can sometimes devolve into, well, sectarian skirmishes if not handled with some delicacy, I offer up a short testimonial in explaining how my own practice has evolved over the past six months.

I learned to cut dovetails by hand, following an article written some years ago by Frank Klausz. The process, which involves removing the waste with chisels, worked well for the white oak I used.

Fast forward several years, and I find myself cutting dovetail joints in poplar, a wood that is very different from white oak. The fibers bend and break in funny places, meaning that it really doesn’t respond well to chopping.

It hit me somewhere around my sixteenth dovetail joint for the tool chest that this problem might explain why many woodworkers use a coping saw to remove waste when cutting dovetails.

I pulled out a coping saw from my tool chest and wasted away the space for the pins. This got me close enough that the chisel work became a paring operation rather than a chopping session.

The board on the left was chopped. The board on the right was coped and pared.

The board on the left was chopped. The board on the right was coped and pared.

I’d tried a coping saw before, but it just sorta clicked for me this time. Maybe it’s that this early Craftsman model coping saw once belonged to my grandfather. Maybe I was more inclined to give it a chance, or maybe I was instinctively more gentle and relaxed with it.

Essential bits of dovetailing kit.

Essential bits of dovetailing kit.

Maybe I just needed to become dissatisfied with my old method before I could find the motivation to stick with the new method.

Now that I have some experience with this cope-and-pare method, I’m starting to see the appeal of the fishtail chisel for paring between pins. But that’s a project for another day.

Suddenly, the woodworking is flowing faster than the writing.

I’m not sure whether it’s the warm weather or the promise of the finish line, but woodworking is progressing faster than I can write about it these days. Lately I’ve been trying to wrap up my Anarchist’s Tool Chest build. Once I got the lid assembled, the project really seemed to accelerate.

I see a saw till.

I see a saw till.

The saw till and the wooden plane rack are installed and holding tools; the runners are installed.

Runners, keep on runnin'.

Runners, keep on runnin’.

What I thought would be the fussy part of the project is turning out to be the quickest part.

It’s exciting to see the inside of the chest come together. I’ve needed this storage for a long time. My tools like to take headers off their wall-hung cabinet shelves when the wind is high, and I dreaded the day I would walk in to find a favorite plane busted on the floor. At this point, all of my planes have a home in the chest, along with my saws. (Okay, some of my saws. I have quite a few. Maybe too many. Don’t tell Bonny.)

"Oh no, that is not all." Dr. Seuss knew of which he spoke.

“Oh no, that is not all.” Dr. Seuss knew of which he spoke.

Now I’m looking forward to having those sliding tills. That’s roughly a quarter of the chest’s storage capacity. As I begin to consider what tools will fill them, it occurs to me that I may need another round of purging. I somehow have four 10″ braces now, even after outfitting my kids’ kits.

Brace yourselves.

Brace yourselves.

I also have a surplus of Irwin-style brace bits. (Wait… is there such a thing?) Anyway, once I sort it all out, I may have some fresh tools for the For Sale list.

I had to go and make it my own.

A few weekends ago I was doing some final fitting for the lid of my tool chest, and I just wasn’t happy with it. No matter what I did to shape the tenon shoulders, I just couldn’t get a nice crisp joint. In retrospect, the tongue-and-groove joint between the frame and panel may have been too tight, causing binding that prevented the mortise pieces from being drawn all the way in. Taking a few shavings from the bottom of the panel probably would have made for a more slip fit and allowed the frame to come together more tightly.

Shrugging shoulders

Shrugging shoulders

The thing was, though, I wasn’t happy with the grain of the wood I chose for the frame, anyway. I really didn’t end up with great frame pieces, and I ended up with plain-sawn boards that weren’t telling a coherent story at all.

On top of that, this was the first project of any size I’d attempted from poplar, and I haven’t enjoyed it. If I had it to do again, I would make the extra effort to find some tight-grained eastern white pine, which I enjoy much more. The poplar seemed very stringy, bending and crushing instead of slicing or chopping under the chisel. With more experience, I’m sure I’d learn some tricks for overcoming that tendency, but the project was dragging on and I was ready to move on.

It was time to start over on the frame, so I followed my instincts and reached in to my stash for some walnut.

I stewed about it that Sunday evening and Monday morning, thinking about how to move forward. After some encouragement from my family (they’re handy that way), I pulled out some of my remaining walnut stock on Monday evening. It was all rough-sawn, so I planed a small area with my block plane to get a sense of the grain.

I discovered these beautiful black streaks running through the board in arcs just long enough for the pieces of the frame.

I discovered these beautiful black streaks running through the board in arcs just long enough for the pieces of the frame.

I found some pieces with strong linear grain that looked promising. There were some knots to work around, but as I measured, I found that the knots fell nicely between sections of arcing riftsawn grain in a way that offered good lengths for each piece of the frame.

Composing with the help of blue painter's tape.

Composing with the help of blue painter’s tape.

The next weekend I got enough time in the workshop to fit the tenons for the new frame. I made sure to adjust the thickness of the panel for a slip fit in the frame, which came together sweetly. I glued up the lid early Sunday evening and celebrated with a beer.

Put a lid down on it. Everything'll be alright.

Put a lid down on it. Everything’ll be alright.

There are differing opinions on whether to keep lumber on hand or to buy it per project. As small as my shop is, there’s a certain logic to taking a just-in-time approach, having only the material on-hand that you’ll use for your current project. The thing is, though, the just-in-time approach doesn’t give me the freedom to explore and compose the way I can with a generous stash of wood. I find myself making compromises, settling for what the lumber retailer has on hand. (The one exception I find to this is sheet goods. I hate having a bunch of plywood hanging around.)

It’s just about time to refresh my stash of walnut, and when the opportunity arises, I’m sure Bonny will lend a sympathetic ear.

Having the lid glued together has accelerated this project, which is good because it’s time for this chest to start paying some rent. I took the time to shim up the left rear wheel so that the chest sits level, and then I moved on to making the wall for the wooden planes at the back of the chest. For the wall, I planed a thin piece of Douglas fir, ripped it to four inches wide, and made cleats from the offcut. The Douglas fir was reclaimed from a workbench a friend of mine gave me that had been his grandfather’s. It was a rough piece made from dimensional lumber, so this has been an exercise in “upcycling.”

I see a saw till.

Son, it’s time you started earning your keep.

The saw till is more reclaimed lumber from that workbench, including a piece of eastern white pine for the wall, which planed very sweetly.

Tomorrow, I plan to move on to the dovetails for the large sliding till.

Spring at Last, Spring at Last

The first day of spring can seem somewhat symbolic in Kansas City. The threat of ice storms loom through April and into May, and one day’s high can be 40 degrees different from the next. This year, we have a cold weekend ahead of us, but at least today was beautiful.

Winter couldn’t end soon enough for my taste. The bitter cold meant I missed more shop days than usual. I don’t want to dwell too much on the extreme and prolonged cold weather we’ve experienced in North America this winter. After all, I have a warm house to call home and can afford my heating bills. Someday, though, I’d like the chance to feel a sense of gratitude for an insulated workshop.

I’m usually comfortable at anything above freezing, especially when I’m planing or sawing. That doesn’t help when I need to glue up an assembly or apply a finish. So today, I was happy that my workshop was warm enough to glue up the panel I was preparing.

It really was kind of American Express to send me these fantastic glue spreaders.

It really was kind of American Express to send me these fantastic glue spreaders.

The panel is for the lid to my Anarchist’s tool chest. I’ve been slowly plodding along, a little at a time.

Confession time: I had two eight-inch wide boards I was jointing by hand and thicknessing by machine. I made the mistake this morning of running the second board through the thickness planer upside down, planing the surface I just jointed, thereby recreating the twist I had just removed and forcing me to joint the board a second time. Luckily, it’s poplar, and the jack plane makes quick work of it when sharp. I won’t make that mistake again! (Yeah, I probably will.)

We’ve been making some progress recently on David’s Dutch tool chest, too. Now that it’s getting warmer, he’s rediscovering his motivation.

David sawing a dado.

David sawing a dado.

My current goal is to get those two projects done and in use so I can get my workshop back in order and wrap up the dining room table I started last year. Bonny wants a table by Thanksgiving!

Speaking of Bonny, she has her own blog, now.