It’s … alive! It’s alive!

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been feeling, well… constrained by the state of my workshop. A few weekends ago, I kicked off a project to restore a wooden storm door, only to realize how much faster it (and every other project) would go if my workshop were at least partially functional. Since I was waiting for a part for my random orbit sander anyway, I decided to shift gears from the storm door and make some progress toward getting my workshop set up.

My basement workshop is a fairly open 28′ x 28′ square, with chimney, furnace, water heater, and boiler in the center. (Even with these, it’s twice the square footage of my last workshop.) The chimney in the center divides the space, with a garage cut in to the east side, several inches lower than the rest of the basement. I decided that I would use that garage bay as my machine room, since that’s when I’m most likely to be working with long stock. I’m planning a bench room in the large open space on the west side (once I tear out an ill-conceived full bathroom). The northeast corner is a tool crib of sorts, with mechanic’s tools and hardware, and a few knocked-together handyman benches left by a previous occupant. I haven’t decided where to place the lathe yet, but it’s coming. Given my project list, I decided to prioritize the machine room. After a few evenings of work, I had my tablesaw reassembled and oriented to provide a good balance of infeed and outfeed space, and shimmed to compensate for the way the floor pitches to the drain.

Stopping at the home center after work on Wednesday, I bought the supplies I needed to wire my workshop outlets. With a little puttering after dinner, I had a working 220v outlet (and a working tablesaw), and everything seemed just a little better. I still need to get a 110v circuit laid out for dust collection, and another for jointer, thickness planer, and smaller power tools, but it feels like progress.

The replacement pad for my random orbit sander arrived on Thursday as expected, but I had to work late and didn’t have the energy to do anything with it. I left it on the kitchen table overnight, not thinking much of it. When I got up Friday morning, the envelope was in shreds and there were a few puppy teeth marks on it.


None the worse for wear.

 Getting back to work Saturday on my screen door, I ended up back at the home center a few times. (I seem to live at the home center these days, but I’m still trying to figure out what must be the most complicated parking lot-to-side-street-to-highway transition in the Greater Kansas City area.) Looking for more sanding disks, what do I find but the same replacement pad I just ordered from Porter-Cable, but for $20 less than I paid to have it shipped to my door. 

I never would have expected it, but apparently the pads must fail pretty often. And yes, I concede, Bonny was right.


Correcting DIY Done Wrong

A few days after moving into our house, my daughter posted a video to social media*, showing the ceiling fan in her new bedroom, ready to spin right off the ceiling. All the other ceiling fans were high-end fans that were competently installed, so the home inspector and I took it for granted that this one would be, too. 

Not so, apparently.

After watching the fan in action, I made sure she knew not to use it until I could get up there to fix it, and last weekend, I finally got that opportunity.  I could tell by the wobble that it wasn’t braced properly, so I bought a retrofit ceiling fan brace on one of my many visits to the home center this month. 

Yesterday I took the fan down to take a look. Sure enough, the fan was mounted to a standard old work ceiling box, which was mounted to … lath.  

That’s right, just lath. And when it first started wobbling, it looks like Handy Andy grabbed some spare stranded wire and looped it around the fan mount to keep it hanging. And what did he attach that tether to? Lath. The same lath that was supporting the ceiling box.

Along the top of the picture, you can barely make out the two fender washers held up by blue concrete screws, which were holding either side of the tether around the fan mount. What, no bailing wire? No duct tape?

I disassembled this safety hazard and installed the ceiling fan brace. Reaching up into the ceiling, I was relieved to find reasonably-spaced rafter ties. positioning the ceiling fan brace was by far the most time-consuming portion of this job. 

Since the drywall ceiling covered the original lath and plaster ceiling, the box that came with the ceiling fan brace didn’t descend low enough to hold the mounting hardware at the right height, so I returned to the home center for a solution. I found an octagonal extension ring that mounted securely to the ceiling box at just the right depth. It held the fan mount securely too, so I was back in business. The fan now spins without the threatening wobble. 

While I was at the home center, I picked up a 60 watt-equivalent LED bulb that was on sale. Since this room is in a converted attic, I figured a cool-running light source might be good. The ancient incandescent bulb burned out shortly after we moved in, anyway.  So far I’m a fan of the Cree LED bulbs. I’ve installed some of the daylight bulbs in my basement workshop, and they’re nice and bright. We’ll just have to see how they perform over the long term.

* While I doubt that any sort of parent-shaming was intended, it was a surprisingly effective attention-getter, regardless. I just hope my wife doesn’t catch on to this strategy.

I’m good to go now.

For years, I treated portable power tools as an afterthought. Sure, I owned them, but I didn’t put much thought into them. And it was beginning to show.

What a mess.

What a mess.

And then this fall, I got a long-overdue replacement for my cordless drill driver – an 18v Bosch. It’s quite a step up from the Black and Decker model I’ve been using for the past decade. Hold on a sec. I need to go fix something…

…Got it. Thanks for hanging in there. Like I was about to say, I’ve gone from looking for alternatives to my cordless drill to looking for reasons to use my cordless drill. What really flipped the light switch for me, though, was the Sortimo case it came in. These cases are a nice balance of durability and light weight, and best of all, they stack in a uniform form factor.

My wife picked up on my enthusiasm for this system, and with my mother and my mother-in-law, colluded to encourage my organization kick. With two of the drawer systems and plenty of drawers, I managed to reduce the mess above down to this tidy stack.

Getting there...

Getting there…

I added a few of the No. 3-sized boxes, one for my plunge router and another for my circular saw, reducing the stack down even further and making room for a leaning tower of fasteners.

A neatly organized space.

A neatly organized space.

So far, these boxes seem to be very thoughtfully designed. Unlike the typical molded cases, the consistent form factor means they take up less space. The latches have a more positive action to them, which is good, since the latches seemed to be the first thing to fail on the original cases for these tools. I do have one drawer that likes to stick on me, but my guess is that this is a result of the way I’ve loaded it.

With the old, bulky boxes in the recycling bin and the white painted bookcase broken down in my stash of reclaimed pine, I’ve saved a fair amount of space in my shop and made these tools much more portable.

I could use a few more of the No. 2 boxes – one for my 15 gauge nailer and another for my sanders – but for the most part, I have this corner squared away. I even hung a cabinet in place of the rickety metal shelving I had hanging upside down to store stains and finishes. The cobbler’s kids are getting shoes.

My Not-So-Mysterious Benefactor

I don’t spend nearly enough time with my dad. As a fellow maker, he is an enabler in the best sense of the word. He coached me through my first furniture project, which quickly inspired me to set up my own woodworking shop. A shrewd and patient observer of classified ads, he found my 1970s Unisaw in the newspaper and called me one bright spring day to see if I was interested. We had it purchased and in my garage a few hours later.

Not long after, he fabricated a T-square rip fence for me, much like the fence he built for his vintage DeWalt tablesaw. I couldn’t have afforded to buy a commercial system at the time (I asked forgiveness, rather than permission, for spending $150 on the tablesaw), but as with all of the best lessons in making, that was completely beside the point. We went to a local metal supply shop, where I bought the materials. He built it to my specifications, giving support for 18″ extensions on either side of the 34″ cast iron top. It has worked every bit as well as one of those commercial systems, and between the saw and the fence system, I had invested maybe 20% of what I would have spent at the local Woodcraft on a new cabinet saw.

Recently, as I began to plan my workshop reorganization, I decided I wanted one 36″ extension to the right instead of an 18″ extension on each side. I simply took the two 70″ pieces of angled steel off the tablesaw and took them over to my dad’s shop for modification.

Over the past decade, my dad has invested heavily in his metalworking capacity, acquiring a hefty Bridgeport milling machine and a heavy-duty metalworking lathe. After discussing what I had in mind, he swung into action, milling new reliefs for the miter slots and new slotted scew holes for the bolts that would attach the rails to the tabletop.

Dad at his Bridgeport milling machine. This is where the magic happens.

Dad at his Bridgeport milling machine. This is where the magic happens.

After a few hours of milling and conversation, he realized he was doing all the work, and asked if I’d like to take a turn at it. It’s a fantastic machine to operate, with digital readouts in three dimensions. I wish there were two of me so I could dedicate one to mastering this new skill.

It's my turn to run the mill. And to take crappy photos.

It’s my turn to run the mill. And to take crappy photos.

I have my fence reassembled, and soon I’ll make a new extension by laminating two layers of 3/4″ MDF. Meanwhile, though, I need to wrap up my workshop reorganization.

The slot on the left was from a decade ago. The slot on the right, made on my dad's Bridgeport mill, shows the benefit of using the right tool for the job.

The slot on the left was from a decade ago. The slot on the right, made on my dad’s Bridgeport mill, shows the benefit of using the right tool for the job.

I’m incredibly fortunate to have my dad nearby, with his fantastic shop and his patient tutelage. Do you have a metalworking mentor, or a buddy who’s willing to swap favors? If you haven’t found one, may I suggest membership in one of the many maker shops that have sprung up in recent years?

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?

‘Tis the Season to Make

This Thanksgiving was the first in several years that my wife and I have not hosted. My mother-in-law decided her hips hurt too badly to climb our front steps, so we made ours a moveable feast. For the past three years or so, my daughter has been an able and eager sous chef, to the point where my only real responsibility is to roast the turkey and keep us organized. She even made a delicious pie crust for the pumpkin pie. Katie and I made many of the dishes the night before, leaving only the turkey, stuffing, and Katie’s mashed potatoes to cook at Grandma’s house.

While I rely heavily on Cook’s Illustrated for recipes, I do have a few family recipes that come out this time of year: my great-grandmother’s pumpkin pie, my grandmother’s egg noodles. We aim for a large turkey so that we have plenty of leftovers for turkey noodle soup over the weekend.

We have one more tradition for Thanksgiving weekend: we head up to the small town of Weston, Missouri on Black Friday. It started several years ago when Bonny began working retail. Of course she had to work, so the kids and I would have an adventure with my mom. These days, Bonny joins in the fun. We enjoy the unique shops, and measure the health of the local economy by the number of empty storefronts. This year looked promising, with several new and flourishing small businesses.

Father Christmas is a fixture in Downtown Weston, and we were pleased to catch him out and about this year.

Bonny and I both grew up in small business families. Her mother sold rare books for many years; my mother owned a salon, and continues to work as a hairstylist (she has a knack for fixing bad hair color experiments). I’m excited to see Bonny’s work as a fiber artist take off, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the new year brings for her.

I did manage to spend some time in my own studio this weekend, making good progress on my dining room table and catching up on some much-needed jigs: a circular saw guide for cutting down plywood accurately, and a miter shooting board (which will work nicely with the Bedrock No. 605 that Bonny bought me in Weston last year).

Testing my Bedrock No. 605 with the miter shooting board.

My circular saw can get jiggy with it now.

Bonny got in the act in 2013.

Here is the 2012 installment.

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.