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?

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Drawers are for Furniture

Maybe I should have titled this post “Why I haven’t built a traditional tool chest yet.”

I’ve read The Anarchist’s Tool Chest three times now. I’ve read it with an open mind and I’ve read it with a critical eye. It’s a compelling book, written with passion and conviction. It convinced me to pare down my own tool kit, to sell off duplicates and single-purpose tools whose functions can be performed with other, more versatile tools. It’s been a liberating process, one that has helped me rewire my thinking from that of a consumer to that of a maker. I still find myself looking around for tools to sell.

After three reads, though, I had one reservation that kept me from building a traditional tool chest. Well, make that two reservations.

The first had to do with floor space. I don’t have a lot of it in my one car garage. The space I would dedicate to a traditional tool chest is home to my sharpening station and a rolling cart that holds probably half of my hand tools. The rest are stored in a cabinet on the wall above my workbench.

I would gladly give up the cart in favor of a chest that would protect those tools from dust and swings in humidity. The thing is, though, I kept my great-grandfather’s Kennedy machinist’s chest on top of that cart. And that’s where my other reservation came in.

You see, I love drawers. I love the mystery of them. I remember as a kid I’d go to my grandfather’s house and look in every drawer in every tool chest, just marveling. (Okay, I still sneak a peak every once in a while. Fascinating.)

It’s funny, though: the thing I love about drawers–the mystery–turns out to be the thing that slows me down as a woodworker. I don’t tend to reach for the right drawer the first time. My brain just doesn’t work that way (or that well, if you ask my wife). For example, it took me twelve years to memorize what each of three light switches do at the back door of my house. The neighbors probably thought I was sending Morse code using my back porch lights.

Maybe I love something that’s not good for me, but I found it hard to give up my machinist’s chest. It’s a bit of self-sabotage to have so many drawers in the way of my daily practice. I used it mostly to store sharpening equipment: stones, files, file card, saw sets. There are also dental picks, Yankee screwdrivers and push drills, a Stanley Hurwood awl that looks like it was beat up by a rival gang of awls, mill files with teeth that are rolled over, Chinese steel shaped to resemble rasps, an old square file I might convert to a birdcage awl one day….

Okay, I had some pretty random crap in there that I could easily let go of.

I’ll be honest. This is not the post I started out writing. I started out thinking how useful my machinist’s chest was, how central it was to my woodworking practice, how I kept it organized, and how everything I kept in there had a purpose. And that was true, when it came to the two bottom drawers. When I looked at it with fresh eyes, the rest of the chest turned out to be hiding a hoard of crap (and also some gems that just didn’t have a good home).

I moved most of the sharpening gear to the metal cabinet where I sharpen, and moved the machinist’s chest on top of a mechanic’s chest for now. What remains in it is a collection of files, a few taps, a die, a screw extractor. I could probably store those files in tool rolls to further reduce my need for drawers in the wood shop.

I think I’ve conquered my drawer demons. I concede the clutter argument, but the bigger issue to me is workflow. I want to spend as much time in the flow as possible. To me, that means honing my skills with fewer tools, and keeping them as accessible as possible.

Floor space, on the other hand, is still a challenge. A traditional joiner’s chest would displace my dedicated sharpening station. What’s worse, the metal cabinet I use for my sharpening station is too small for the purpose. (I like the elegance of Tom Fidgin’s dedicated sharpening bench, but it would take up as much space as the tool chest.)

Taking a look around my shop, there is one way to fit in both the tool chest and the sharpening bench: I need to stop hoarding wood (at least in my workshop). Of all the conclusions I’ve reached through this process, this might be the toughest. But if I’m going to create an environment where I can sustain creative flow, I need the room more than I need instant access to wood. Luckily, I have a project coming up that will use a significant amount of the oak I have on hand, oak I harvested nearly five years ago from a friend’s back yard.

I’m sure I’ll build the tool chest before too long. If I have enough oak left, I could make a purpose-built bench for sharpening, one that would support my saw vise (plus the hand-crank grinder I’ve been coveting).

But first, I have some furniture to build.

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.

Taking the long view

Dustin Wax posted this article on Lifehack.org, leading off with the perennial “where do you want to be in 5 years?” and moving into a discussion of personal development. 

There are many potential responses:  Why, as a creative, would I care? Why should I think about where I’ll be in five years, and how I’ll get there?  Because if I don’t, it’s a pretty safe bet I won’t get there.

Taking Dustin’s bait, I started drawing out a timeline… of the next twenty years.

With young kids, it pays to take the long view.  I began by mapping out milestone birthdays for myself and my kids. Then I mapped out when they would be getting braces and drivers licenses, then graduating from high school and college.

I’ll be 50 when my youngest graduates from college. He’ll start college during his sister’s senior year, so things might get interesting if their 529 accounts don’t perform well.

I dug out a plan from my someday maybe file that would let me pay off my mortgage 10 years early by paying $200 extra to principal each month. Realizing that my payoff date would still arrive after my daughter graduated, I upped my forecast payment to $250 per month, and my projected payoff date hit just as my son started college. Perfect.  Plus, if their 529 accounts cover their college expenses, we’ll be in a strong financial position, with low expenses at the height of our earning potential.

Now I just have to convince my wife that it’s the best use of that $250 each month.

Wondering when I might retire comes second right now.  Sure, I want to have the best retirement I can, and make good decisions along the way.  Meanwhile my plan is to have a full life, and to look for opportunities to take on fun and interesting projects.  Taking a realistic look at my life and knowing where I can fit in creative work will be more satisfying than ignoring the future and getting frustrated at a lack of opportunity.

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. 

Study Time

Frame and PanelOne of the lessons GTD has taught me is that at any given unscheduled, unoccupied moment, I should take on the task I have time and energy for, the task that’s appropriate for the current context. So for example, I have a list of the phone calls I need to make when I have time and access to a phone, and a list of tasks I need to perform in the workshop to move my woodworking projects forward.

But it pays to think carefully about context, and how we really define it.  Lately I’ve begun thinking of my workshop more as a studio: as a place to explore, to express my creativity; as Merriam-Webster defines it, “a place for the study of an art”.  The interesting thing about seeing a woodworking shop as a studio is that it invites one to explore.  So if I don’t have an opportunity to move projects forward in my studio because I’m waiting for a finish to dry or glue to cure, what do I do in the studio?

A few nights ago, I had such a moment: It was too cold to finish or glue, I was too tired to do precision joinery, but mentally I was still engaged.

I began exploring, experimenting with my tools and materials: a scrap of cherry clamped in the vise, a spokeshave with a throat made fine with a thick aftermarket blade. Could I imagine an edge treatment more subtle and more sensitive than I could produce with a router? Could I make it curve gently this way, slope inward that way?

What other tools might complement the process? A few wooden planes, received gratefully from a friendly chap in Britain who keeps his eyes out for such things… They were so crisp and well cared-for that I nearly didn’t sharpen them for use, but this night, I realized they were begging for use. I sharpened them, working the concavity with a slipstone as one would a carving gouge. Sharpened, I put them to use in my experiment, the shavings spilling off to the right.

I didn’t move my projects forward at all that night, and I didn’t cross any task off my list. However, I developed an idea for a future project, and explored the potential methods for achieving the results I might want. Best of all, I did it when I had the energy and enthusiasm for that particular task, not when I was committed to some larger project with other tasks.

Creativity and corporate life

I was talking with a friend today about blogging, and realized I had a few topics simmering just below my level of conscious awareness.  I love that part of the creative process: ”cogitatio”, as I’ve come to regard it. 

Working in a corporate environment, I realized I was a self-conscious blogger in two ways.  As a cubicle dweller, I’ve had a certain reluctance to let down the boundaries between my work life and my creative life.  These are such vastly different parts of my life.  I am equally passionate in each pursuit, but I’m reluctant to discuss work issues here out of respect for my employer: I’m not authorized to speak on their behalf, and I wouldn’t want to. 

That said, there’s a certain impulse in corporate life to be “hard core”, and it’s too easy for some in that environment to dismiss the creative process as somehow “soft”.  Fortunately, I believe, the realities of the knowledge economy, whose primary product is intellectual capital, have forced the corporate world to begin to embrace the creative process as another way to work, equal to the regimented production line and buttoned-down cubicles.  Leaders of vision know to measure the value of a person’s creative output without regard for the path they took to get there.

On the other end of this relationship between the corporate career and the creative life, I find myself at times fretting over my credibility as a creative:  I haven’t made the ultimate commitment to my art, trying to earn a living from my creative work. 

In my more lucid and thoughtful moments, though, I dismiss the concern over credibility. 

As fantastic long-time mentor Priscilla Riggle reminds me, there’s plenty of precedent for the non-creative career both stimulating and funding the creative life.  I can let the non-creative daily routine lead to creative expression that ebbs and flows in a natural rhythm.

That I don’t feed my kids through my creative work is actually liberating: I can focus on what’s in me to create with little concern for what is marketable.  If I want to write a poem, I write a poem.  If I want to make a desk, I make a desk.  I can be, in Jim Krenov’s words, an amateur of a certain sort, doing my best work without regard for salability.

That seems to me to lead neither to a complete embrace of the avant garde nor to a satisfaction with rear-guard recitation.  I find a coherent inner dialog pointing toward a third way.  Mostly, I don’t want to say something obvious.  I have little patience for the obvious.  I want to create interesting things, whether its in words or wood.

Living at the intersection of corporate work and creative life, another of the benefits I find is in the field of productivity.  Strategies such as Getting Things Done work wonderfully in both creative and corporate settings.