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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‘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.

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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).

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

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My circular saw can get jiggy with it now.

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Bonny got in the act in 2013.

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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.

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.