Virtual Workshop Time

In my fantasy life, I would have long, uninterrupted days to spend in the shop, forgetting to eat lunch, jumping from project to project with no care for what got done or how long it took. Everything would be in soft focus and I’d look up earnestly and wonder aloud “is this heaven?” My Elysium probably won’t be set in a corn field in Iowa; I’m guessing maybe a New England state, given the more ready availability of old tools.

In real life, I’m an amateur woodworker with a day job, a mortgage, and a family, so my workshop time comes at a premium. It’s easy to get stuck, or to spin my wheels trying to figure out what to do next. That’s why, when I step into the workshop, I like to have a plan.

Here’s what works for me.

I keep a notebook with my current projects, plus graph paper and drawing paper. For each project, I’ll make a list of each step I can think of. Order of operation isn’t crucial at this point, but if I realize I need something else in place before I perform the task I just thought of, I’ll make a note. The point here is not to have a perfect, unchanging plan, but simply to gather my thoughts.

my notebook in action

Once I have this done for each project, I’ll go back through and make a short list of any task I could perform immediately in the workshop, regardless of project. Then, when I get my next opportunity in the workshop, I can make the best use of my time. I’ll repeat this process when my short list is complete, when I start a new project, or when life has kept me out of the workshop for a while.

I don’t think the fancy notebook I use has any secret sauce to it. Once upon a time, I was infatuated with it, so I rushed out and bought tons of filler and accessories. I’ll use it as long as I have filler for it. After that, maybe I’ll switch to a bound notebook. It’s a bit like sharpening systems, really. You can be dogmatic about it and thump your chest, or you can just pick something and use it to its fullest.

Moleskine confessional


I’m sorry, Circa.  It wasn’t you–it was me.  You were so flexible, so easy-going, and I took advantage of that, didn’t I?  Can we make it work, you and I?  Can I repair the damage, that broken trust?  There’s still so much to do.  You’re so well organized, and I? well, I still need you. 

It’s just that this other notebook, you see, I need it too.  Such a slim volume, with its creamy sheets.  It’ll be discreet, I promise. 

No, it’ll never be as forgiving as you.  How could it?  It’s so linear.  It shows me all my flaws, my missteps.  But it can also remember the moments of brilliance. 

Can’t it?

Exploring with the new router

I almost made it to Friday.  I purchased my new router, a Porter-Cable 895PK, and it arrived Wednesday morning.  My original plan was to wait until Friday to drive across the state line to the Woodcraft franchise in Lenexa, Kansas and pick one up in the store.  However, a free shipping offer from meant I could save myself the sales tax.  That, and having a need for the new tool in one of my current projects was all it took for me to talk myself into it. 

Feeling less than heroic, I told myself I could play with it after mowing the yard and getting the kids to bed.  (Bedtime was a must anyway, but throwing in the mowing made it seem like I was accomplishing something.)

the kitI unpacked the tool with a certain amount of ceremony, laying out each piece on my workbench.  It came in the fixed base, but immediately I switched to the plunge base and made sure I knew what the basic controls did.

My first impression was positive.  The controls were straight-forward and the plunge action was smooth–a concern since Fine Woodworking had faulted it for being slightly less smooth than the Bosch equivalent.

exploration 1I thought it would be interesting to try a Krenov-style through-tenon.  Using a 1/4″ spiral upcut bit in the plunge router, I cut the mortise.  Here I began to have concerns.  The router did not come with an edge guide, so I had to do some creative workpiece holding to arrange for the flat side of the router base to ride against a reference edge to get an accurate joint.  Luckily, there’s a mail-in rebate that makes the accessory free with purchase of the router.

The other thing I noticed about the tool was the absolute need to use a vacuum to keep the dust clear as I ran the machine.  The plunge base includes a built-in vacuum port, which worked beautifully once I plugged in the vacuum. 

The tenon I cut on the table saw with a tenon jig.  I rounded the tenon sides with a Nicholson No. 50 Cabinetmaker’s Rasp and sandpaper.  I used a Stanley No. 93 shoulder plane to tweak the tenon cheeks for a friction fit.  I then cut saw kerfs in the tenon to accept the walnut wedges.  Next I cut out the wedges and drove them home.  I finished off the wedges to match the profile of the tenon.

exploration 4
After sanding the test piece to 220 grit, I applied a linseed oil and beeswax finish for deep, natural color.  The maple tenon really pops in the walnut, especially with the wedges establishing a rhythm.

I can imagine this as the apron and legs of a table or the base stand of a cabinet. 

Overall, I was pleased with the router and the results I was able to achieve on the first try.  This is a significant upgrade from my first router, but more on that later.

exploration 5
The oil and wax finish gave a great depth of color to the walnut, something I was looking for. I especially like the gradient effect of the sapwood as it blends into the heartwood. 

I’m not sure where I picked it up, probably, but I used a piece of scrap maple from another project as my stir stick for the finish.  It really gave depth to the figured maple in the stir stick. 

These explorations are great uses for small scrap, and they also provide fodder for design choices later on.  Nights like these are less about moving my current projects forward, and more about charging my creative batteries.  View the pictures here.

It doesn’t get any better than this

Saturday was a fantastic day – no exaggeration.

a great toy!

With a break in the weather this week, I set out to accomplish two goals:  remove a washed-out and poorly-graded sidewalk from the north side of my house, and load logs from an enormous tree onto a trailer to take to the sawyer.

All I needed was a skid steer loader.

By Wednesday of last week, the plan was taking shape.  After getting a bid for someone to come out and load the logs for me, I realized that for the same money, I could rent the loader for the day and accomplish both goals.  I’d arranged for a container for the concrete, and for the sawyer to receive the logs at his place.  I would rent the loader first thing in the morning with the assistance of my best friend, Jesse, and his Ford F-350.

We started by loading two logs onto the trailer for the skid steer loader (shh! Don’t tell the rental company!), and Jesse and my dad drove the logs out to the saw mill.

Meanwhile, I taught myself the finer points of operating the loader (it was my first time, and I couldn’t stop grinning for hours!) while removing my sidewalk.

The tree, a swamp white oak that was over 200 years old, fell last spring, crushing my neighbor’s garage.  Over the course of last summer, my neigbor replaced her garage, and allowed me to claim the trunk for lumber.  I split the log with a 30″ chainsaw, splitting wedges, and a 10 pound sledge, but when the sawyer came out with his portable bandsaw mill, we failed to get the log sections onto the deck.  They were each still as heavy as the average log, but incredibly awkward due to their geometry.  For want of a skid steer loader, the logs remained in my neighbor’s yard over the winter.

washed out

The sidewalk was a mess.  Running parallel to the north side of my house, it had washed out severely in one location, funneling gallons of muddy water through the mortar of the stone foundation.  It was also graded slightly toward the house rather than away, allowing rainwater to flow through the cracks between the sidewalk and the foundation. I marveled at the size of the cavity below this section of sidewalk, which corresponded to the worst leakage in the basement.

The plan couldn’t have gone off much better.  I had pulled up about half of the sidewalk by the time Jesse returned for the second load of logs.  We loaded him back up, and he took the second load to the saw mill while I continued on the sidewalk.  Once Jesse returned from his second trip, we finished up the concrete tear-out, minus one double-thick section of concrete that was still connected to the wall. 

With that one section remaining, we had reached a point of diminishing returns on our efforts, and decided it was time to return the loader.  There’s still so much to do to complete this round of home improvement, but it was such a quantum leap forward, it required bold action.

north side, after sidewalk is removed

Though the landscaping is in disarray, the progress I made in a single day is exhilarating, giving me an incredible sense of momentum. Removing the sidewalk opened up great potential for the north side of the house.  With only ten feet from the side of my house to the edge of my neighbor’s driveway, the three foot-wide sidewalk made this space seem even smaller than it was, visually dividing the width, and reducing the planting space.  I’ve always envisioned a contemplative garden retreat here, and finally I can realize that vision.