Running a Leaner Workshop

One of the subtle gems featured in Jim Tolpin’s The Toolbox Book is the tool chest of Tony Konovaloff. In one of the tills is shown maybe a dozen spare plane irons standing on their side.

For well over a decade, I’ve looked on that thick stash of spare plane irons as some ideal situation: sharpen en masse and swap out when you need a fresh edge. So I headed down that path, and all seemed right with the world.

And then, during my sabbatical table build, it happened. I realized just how quick it is to pause from planing, turn around to sharpen a plane iron, and get back to planing. I also found that the stop-to-sharpen approach offers a natural break during high-endurance planing tasks.

But it was my jointer plane itself that began to press the issue. I bought my Stanley No. 8c (a type 13) five years ago from a fellow hand tool enthusiast. The plane came to me with a Clifton Stay-Set cap iron and a Hock plane iron. Somewhere along the way, I acquired a spare Hock iron.

a conundrum

As quick as it is for me to hone an iron and get back to work, the Stay-Set cap iron makes it that much quicker, allowing me to get back to work without fuss. I was really feeling conflicted. I had to do something: either get rid of the cap iron in favor of Ron Hock’s version, or ditch my spare plane iron.

Finally, despite keeping that spare plane iron oiled and in a cloth tool roll, I noticed a spot of rust developing, and it was clear what direction I needed to go. I scrubbed off the rust and sold it to a fellow woodworker.

I also sold a few other tools while my back was healing, tools that duplicated my trustiest users. With the proceeds, I ordered a Lie-Nielsen large shoulder plane. Once it arrives, I’ll offer my Stanley No. 93 for sale. My No. 93 has served me well, certainly for 95% of the tasks I set it to, but when working the shoulders of long tenons, I noticed I’d like it to be taller so I didn’t scrape my knuckles.

They get scraped up enough just dragging on the ground.


Hay Rake Table: Some Mid-Project Reflection

It’s been nearly two weeks since the end of my sabbatical and my return to part-time woodworking. Even though my project isn’t complete, it seems like a good time to look back.

Over the past six weeks, I’ve learned some great things. I learned that I like the feel of old tee shirts, preferably at least ten years old. I learned that my daughter is old enough to mow the lawn, and she does a good job of it.

I also learned quite a bit about my woodworking practice, and what I can improve for the next project, and that’s what I want to focus on in this post.

I haven’t completed my hay rake table, but I’m pleased with my progress. The table top is glued up; the stretchers and legs are milled, mortised, and tenoned, but not yet assembled. Next up is to chamfer the legs and stretcher pieces. I also need to make the breadboard ends and inlay the splines, and of course apply the finish.


I gained a great appreciation for my local lumber dealers. Had I been working with store-bought lumber, I likely would have saved a considerable amount of time spent planing. I didn’t anticipate the amount of twist I would encounter in this wood, or the extra boards I would plane when I encountered defects in other boards.

On the other hand, I discovered some time-saving work methods as I went that will make the next project more efficient. For example, it finally hit home that by ripping a wider board close to final width, the twist in the board becomes easier to manage. (For the ripping operation, it worked well to follow a chalk line on my bandsaw, knowing that I would joint the edge by hand later.) It was helpful that I’d decided on a table top composed of four 10″-wide boards.

Given that decision, I suppose I could have taken my lumber to my dad’s shop and used his 12″ jointer, but I tend to make large, expensive wedges on powered jointers. I’m sure some coaching would sort out that tendency, and as coaches go, I’ve been fortunate to have my dad to learn from. However, the results I achieve by hand and the satisfaction I get from the process are what keep me at it.

Three weeks is the longest stretch in which I’d worked consecutive full time in the workshop. Working full time is much different from the evening and weekend work I was used to. For the three months prior to my sabbatical, I’d been woodworking in the mornings before work, which forced me to think in ninety minute increments.

The ninety minute mark is not an arbitrary measure for me. Ninety minutes turned out to be the amount of time required to accomplish a meaningful unit of work in the shop. Less time and I found that I didn’t have a chance to get into the flow of the work. More time, and I either wasn’t getting enough sleep or I was showing up late for work.

One of those ninety minute tasks I’m looking forward to is applying a coat of finish. For the finish, I’m leaning toward Tried and True Original Wood Finish. On my sample piece, it imparted a warm glow that should contribute nicely to the character of this project.

My Tool Storage is not Zombie-Proof

We’ve had a fair amount of rain here in Kansas City lately, and last Thursday’s thunderstorm brought driving rain that managed to work its way up under the roofing of my garage workshop. I watched, disturbed, as rain water started dripping steadily from the ceiling, less than two feet from my hand tools. The dripping eventually stopped, and it’s been an isolated incident, but it got me to think more about tool storage. My current arrangement is far from zombie-proof. It’s not even dust-proof, and it’s certainly not mobile. An Anarchist’s Tool Chest is definitely on my 2013 build list.

Interestingly, the top nine items on my woodworking want list (including the tool chest) are things I want to make instead of things I want to buy. So far, I’ve made it through my current project without once thinking I could do something better if I only had some new tool. Instead, I’ve found myself grateful for the tools I own, like my miter box, my Gramercy Tools saw vise, serviceable back saws, and my jack plane.

my miter box

My tools aren’t glamorous. I don’t own anything I’d be afraid to use. There are some pieces I’d like to upgrade, mostly so I’ll have tools for my kids’ kits. But getting to an essential kit of tools created an exciting creative constraint that energized my woodworking. I spend less time thinking about tools I want and more time thinking about projects I want to build.

Like a tool chest.

Maybe the tool chest itself won’t escape the zombie apocalypse, but at least it could escape a random roof leak.

Please Hold for Your Next Available Woodworker

Wednesday morning found me parked in front of the DeWalt Factory Service Center in Lenexa Kansas, waiting for the store to open so I could buy parts for my thickness planer. The manager saw me waiting and invited me in 15 minutes early. I was back on the road by the time the store was supposed to open. What a great guy!

DeWalt Service Center

Why did I need parts? It seems the nut holding the pulley on the cutter head had worked loose, allowing the drive belt to slip and burn through the belt guard.

burning plastic stinks

The belt went on quickly, and while I had everything apart, I decided to make things neat and tidy, cleaning off the mixture of sawdust and lithium grease. I used graphite spray instead of lithium grease. No more gunk!

neat and tidy

Last but not least, the bed got a coat of paste wax.

like a new dime

Roll Your Own

Working on a large project (like the dining room table I’m currently building) is a great way to shake out new methods of work and new shop arrangements. While my current arrangement is the best I’ve come up with yet, I still have a list of changes I want to make once my current project is complete.

Big on my list are a traditional tool chest, a sharpening bench, and some better organization for my clamps. To go with the tool chest, I want some cotton tool rolls for efficient storage.

Most of that list can wait, but I had to do something about my brad point bits. The block of wood I stored them in was tippy, and they were always in the way.

So Tuesday night, I decided to make a proof-of-concept tool roll for my brad point bits, borrowing my daughter’s sewing machine to do it. (Hey, she borrows my table saw, so it’s only fair, right?) I had some old khaki pants I needed to upcycle, so it seemed like a low-risk proposition.


This turned out to be a great side project, solving a shop problem and providing the sort of immediate gratification to keep me energized for my longer project.


Best yet, it worked out well as a proof-of-concept project. I have plenty of fabric on hand for more tool rolls. With something as utilitarian as this, I can’t see a reason to buy what I could make in a couple of hours.


Planing is Everything

“Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.” -Dwight Eisenhower

After a week of volunteering, I jumped headlong into my sabbatical project, a dining room table inspired by Sidney Barnsley’s hay rake table. So far, it’s felt like planing is everything.

One of my goals for this project was to use the swamp white oak lumber I harvested in 2008. Many of those boards were wide planks, 12″ and wider, with a few that were 17″ wide and over 8′ long. At 2″ thick, these widest boards weighed in at 90 lbs each, so this first week has been mostly about wrestling big planks, jointing them flat and planing them to a uniform thickness.

Do the twist.

Had I gone to the lumber yard and purchased the lumber, I could have picked boards with less twist or fewer defects, but I wouldn’t have had the same connection to the wood – wood I’ve taken from tree trunk to planks, and now to table.

bushels of shavings

What’s emerging from the bushels of shavings are four boards, each with a gentle arc to the grain that will come together to suggest an ellipse in the rectangular tabletop and provide an interesting counterpoint to the series of butterfly splines I’ll inlay down the center of the table.

elliptical grain pattern

I’ll edge joint and rip each to 10″ wide before the glue-up. Given the amount of twist I had to contend with, it wasn’t practical to insist on using the full width of those 17″ boards. It turned out to be a good decision, granting me much more flexibility and permission.

My initial plan was to do the project in the remaining three weeks I’d have after my week of service, allowing about a week for the top, a week for the base, and a week for the finish. This plan gave me plenty of flexibility: if I need to, I can apply the finish once I return to work. I also left my weekends free in this plan, so if it’s close, I can work through my two remaining weekends.

While I underestimated the work It would take to joint the tabletop pieces, I learned a lot for the next project, and I’m grateful for the flexibility I left in my plan at the start.

I Didn’t Know Jack

For my latest project, I’m working with a lot of 12″ to 18″ wide boards, so jointing by hand is the road home, and the jack plane is getting some serious mileage.

and miles to go before I sleep

While jointing the first two boards, I learned a lot about what makes a jack plane comfortable in my hands.

First, I learned that while my eyes prefer the subtle elegance of the low knob, my hand prefers the taller knob to keep my palm away from the base of the plane.

(Insert knob joke here.)

My No. 4 smoother had a tall knob, so I swapped it for the low knob from my No. 5. Since the smoothing plane swoops in toward the end of the project when the jack has done all the hard work, it seemed like a good trade.


The second lesson I learned was the importance of the horn on the tote. Here on the island of broken totes, the tote that was on my jack was missing its horn, leaving an annoying nub that pressed into the web of my thumb.


Reaching into the parts bin, I found a tote that had broken in half, had been glued back together, and then broken again along the glue line. I glued it together with tinted epoxy, but didn’t quite get the pieces to line up. A shame, really. The rosewood is beautiful on this one.


As I was about to install the re-glued tote on my jack, I looked up and saw the No. 7 jointer plane that’s been sitting on the shelf just looking good since I got my No. 8 a few years ago. The No. 7 tote is compatible with the No. 5 body, if slightly larger. I won’t complain.


I didn’t know my jack plane could be so comfortable in my hands.