Bench room, meet throne room.Β 

A few weekends ago, I rented a small U-Haul truck and packed up my workshop. The 15′ truck was big enough to hold all of my machinery and benches, but if I ever do this again, I’ll find a truck with a lift gate instead of U-Haul’s long ramp. I got about half-way into the move and realized I needed a helper (a spotter?) to get the Unisaw and 18″ bandsaw loaded. I called my dad, who always has good ideas in these situations.

Loading went fairly smoothly after that, with just one hitch. As we were pushing my Anarchist’s Tool Chest toward the ramp, the wheels caught on the ramp, pulling the leading batten cleanly off. Maybe I should have glued them on after all, or maybe that would have led to more damage. I don’t know. One more thing to add to the to-do list.

More than a week later, everything was pretty much as it came off the truck. The main issue?

What is it about 100 year-old basements that make people want to build full bathrooms in them?

I didn’t quite get this makeshift throne room torn out of my soon-to-be bench room, like I’d planned. My last house, a 1917 foursquare, also had a shower in the basement. I’m personally not a fan of subterranean showers.

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Come together right now (but not over me, please).

A few years ago, I shoved my machines to the back of the shop to focus on hand tool skills. Now that I have a better sense of what I can accomplish with my hand tools, and how efficiently I can accomplish it, I’m ready to let the machines rejoin the party.

Don’t get me wrong; I love my hand tools, and in a fire, I’d still rescue my chest of hand tools before anything else. But since I own a cabinet saw, a jointer, and a thickness planer, all of which I bought used, each in good working condition, I see no sense in letting them sit unused.

As a maker I’ve come to see myself not as a victim of the Industrial Revolution, but as an inheritor of a post-industrial landscape. My 1970s cabinet saw came out of a small fiberglass shop about a mile from the house where I grew up. My thickness planer and jointer came used from hobbyists who were looking to get out. The only major machine I bought new was my 18″ bandsaw, in celebration of my 10th wedding anniversary.

I have my workshop turned upside down right now, about three quarters of the way toward a major reorganization that will bring my tablsaw back into the center of production. My joinery workbench will eventually sit below a north-facing window.

I'll give up some depth in my 14' x 24' garage shop, but I'll gain more-precious width.

I’ll give up some depth in my 14′ x 24′ garage shop, but I’ll gain more-precious width.

Key to this reorganization was to shift all of my wood storage to the West wall, storing full-length boards on end over a raised floor off the concrete surface. I’d helped my dad make something similar for his shop several years ago in his spacious two-car garage, and it turned out to be a much more efficient use of space.

It’s coming together nicely, but I’d forgotten how heavy some of this lumber is. There was a moment, when I’d worn myself out and carried a particularly heavy board to the corner, that I imagined myself pinned beneath the board, unable to call for help. Time to break for dinner.

For my next trick, I’m removing the heavy-duty lumber rack to make room for a shop-built system to store offcuts and sheet goods. I wish I could take credit for this idea, but I have to tip my hat to Frank Howarth, whose wood rack video made me realize how much space I could reclaim in my own shop.

I’m looking forward to a more organized and more efficient workshop in the coming year. What are your woodworking goals for 2015?

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.