Friday, December 30, 2011

Old Bricks

Earlier this year my wife and I spent a day walking around a steampunk festival in Waltham, MA. Some of the festival was a little weird; a large contingent of sci-fi fetishists were wandering around in clothing that was covered in broken watch parts, and other elaborately contrived devices.  But some of the festival was interesting. And the Charles River Museum of Industry was showing off a number of cool things. It sparked a number of conversations about art, and technology, and so on.

One of the things that I finally noticed is that all of the fantastic contraptions, contrived as they are, are designed to augment humanity, and not to replace it. I saw a costume with an oversized mechanical hand. There was a painting of a huge mechanical creature with four arms, controlled by a brain in a jar, that was even more outlandish. (Outlandish, but still being controlled by a human brain.) And in the realm of the real, there was an old watch case engraving device on display in the museum; it took normal human movements within a 2 foot circle, and scaled them down in speed and scope to fit those designs onto watch cases. This would enable a normal person to engrave the finest of details in silver, without needing such fine motor skills and perfect eyesight. It was really cool. Real or imagined, the machines still imply and require the presence of a human mind to make everything work. But my biggest concern with steampunk (fetishist costumes aside) is that the notion of humans accomplishing incredible things, even with mechanical embellishment, is starting to be regarded as fantasy.

The Everett Mill
I have a hard time with this, because I work in Lawrence, MA. Lawrence has a dark history regarding treatment of labor. But the town itself was designed to operate as a manufacturing machine on a monumental scale. And it was built that way from the foundations up. A dam in the Merrimac river feeds canals that run alongside the building foundations. These canals connected to huge underground water tunnels, feeding the turbines that powered the mill buildings and all of their machinery. The factories were designed to breathe in raw materials via railway, and exhale finished products on those same trains. The Dam, the canals, the foundations and the buildings, and the train bridges... Lawrence as an enterprise was the reality of capable men building functional systems on a very large scale. But there’s more to it than that, because the earliest precision machines weren’t made by other machines. Lawrence is an amazing example of hand craftsmanship. The buildings and bridges and the infrastructure from 100 years ago are still there. And it conveys just how capable human hands really are.

My building superintendent told me a few things that he learned about the neighboring building that he learned while they were preparing to turn it into condos. The walls taper in thickness going up, but it’s so gracefully done that it’s not obvious without using a plumb line. They surveyed it before turning it into condos. The diagonals of each floor were measured to see how square the building was, and the diagonals differed by three quarters of an inch. This kind of detail is impressive on its own, but more so when you consider that it’s a 7 story building hundreds of feet long, made of hand laid brick.

The Wood Mill
And this kind of craftsmanship is all over town. The Wood Mill, end to end, is longer than the height of the Empire State Building... and it's a nice, clean, straight building. (Currently being converted into loft spaces) The Ayer Mill building (now occupied by New Balance) has the second-largest 4 sided clock tower in the world, with clock dials that are only 6” smaller in diameter than those of Big Ben. After over 100 years, the original hand-made clock movement is still running, and keeping good time. (Some ASTOUNDING photos can be found here.) The city itself was designed to be (and still feels like) a huge production machine, built with a know-how that feels all but lost sometimes... but the bricks that haven’t been knocked down are all still solidly in place. The canals and bridges are still there. Many of the connections between buildings are still there, and it’s still easy to see where the trains came and went, bringing raw materials in, and finished products out, in an efficient fashion. And the more I learn about how the city was made, the more impressed I am by the feeling of walking around inside of something really cool. It’s old, it’s diminished, and parts of it are long gone. I still marvel that the humble human hand can build such things.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

More cool books

Here are a couple more to add to the growing list of Cool Books.   (New Tag on the right hand side of the blog.)

-I just finished re-reading Tage Frid teaches woodworking. There are three volumes. The first two are available together in a single softcover volume, which is what I just plowed through. Tage Frid went through a traditional apprenticeship in Denmark, and made a career out of woodwork, and teaching woodworking, and he has a clear no-nonsense approach to the work. He also makes a point to explain how to fix up less than perfect work, which is unusual in most of the WW books that I've read on the topic of furniture construction.

It's a dated volume in that it was put together in the 70's, and the photos are in black and white. But it's such a clean and clear rundown on so many basic and intermediate skills, that it's a no brainer for a beginner, and (obviously) I still go back to re-read it once in a while.

 -Woodworker by Sam Maloof. One of the great things about Sam Maloof is that like Tage Frid, he was a no-nonsense craftsman. Sapwood? Fine. Wood screws? Absolutely. Wood worship? Sorry, not right now, need to make a living. In a world filled with hand tool purists and nonsense, it's still fun to see someone getting down with a surform rasp and a power sander. I recently read an interview with Maloof in FWW #25. He said that he got visits all the time from people who asked him if they could make it as a woodworker. He observed that a lot of them were more in love with the idea than the reality... and that schools pump out students who produce objects that are very precious, because there's enough time at school to obsess over detail. Getting work finished and out the door in time to get the bills paid is a much different experience.

-Given that I just referenced FWW #25, and that I'm working my way through my magazine archives to see what's there, I have to recommend any of the older issues of Fine Wood Working. The old issues were a lot denser, and the articles and tips were a lot more in-depth. It's not as approachable for rank beginners, but I appreciate reading articles that are a little more demanding of the reader. I want to grow as a woodworker, and I feel like recent and current crop of WW rags are trying really hard to engage beginners, not experienced or active woodworkers.

-365 Tao: Daily Meditations, by Ming-Dao Deng. I'm not always able to read this one every day, so it's going to take me much longer than 365 to get through it. I'm not a new-age hippy type, but Tao and Zen books have justified their place on my book shelf. And this one has managed to regularly offer insights that help me run and grow my shop and mind a little more smoothly.

Happy (post) Holidays...

This is going to be a good year, once I finish plowing through the holiday leftovers that have invaded my fridge. Gotta love a Scandinavian family, but holy cow do they love their holiday cheeses...

Once all of that has been dealt with, here are a few of the things I want to get done in the coming year:

-I've been talking for years about writing a book about my experiences as a beginning woodworker. Between working for Rockler and Woodcraft, going to the North Bennet Street School, and moving out of the basement and into a 'real' shop space, there's a lot to talk about, and the book has been simmering for years. I started taking the train in November to get some writing time in, and that was when I began to understand that the battery in my laptop is 4 years old. You can't write much in 25 minutes. But my loving sister gave me a new battery for Christmas, so I'll be able to put more time in on that project. Much like all of that holiday cheese, it really is time to get it out of my system, so I can think about something new.

-Related to the book, I'm going to start setting blogging deadlines, in part so that I can work out some of the things I plan on detailing in the book. The entries on shop organization were the first of many topics to come. Going forward, I plan on putting something up every Wednesday and Sunday.

-The shop should be getting some interesting projects pretty soon... among other things, there will be more clocks. And the process of organizing my thoughts on shop organization and workflow has forced me to call BS on some of my current methods, because I really could do better. There are some much needed improvements that need to be made.

-Other than the laptop battery, I got some really cool books this Christmas, one of which is a book on Wharton Esherick. He was (from what little I know) one of the direct fore-runners to studio furniture guys like Sam Maloof and George Nakashima. I enjoy tracing back the roots of the things that I'm excited about. Where did they come from, how did they evolve, that sort of thing. And just flipping through the Esherick book, I can tell it's going to be a blast. He made a lot of very visceral stuff, that reminds me alternately of American craft furniture, and Arts and Crafts furniture from guys like Sidney Barnsley. (Though Esherick's work seems a little more rough around the edges.) One of the things I want to write more about in the future is the art of woodworking, and pieces that actually inspire me. Shop methods and so on are useful when it comes to moving things forward a little faster, but inspiration is the fuel in the tank that keeps me going. I feel like the magazines do a methodical job of beating dovetails and beginner stuff to death, while ignoring a lot of the other really inspiring stuff that's out there. American craft furniture is a good place to start, but there's a lot more that I want to look into, from all over the world. Even if I don't plan to make most of it, it's usually enlightening to try to understand how things were made, and to wrap my mind around why various designs are so exciting.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Blog update: Round Tuits

Looking at the stats for the page, my entries on the Emmert Vise and the Veritas Twin Screw have been pretty solidly popular. But, looking back, those narratives weren't as cohesive as I wanted them to be. I've wanted to put better articles together. I'm finally getting around to it.

Looking up to the top of the Home page you'll find a link to a detailed narrative on installing the Emmert. Eventually I'll turn that into an Emmert page, that has links both to an installation page, and an ongoing section about what I use the thing for, and practical day to day work tips. The more I use the Emmert vise, the more I like it, because it's more flexible than I gave it credit for. And even if the closest you can get to an Emmert is a Chinese knock-off, I've seen those in person, and helped install one, too. They're much better than I thought they'd be.

I'm also going to have a section up there on the Veritas Twin-screw vise. Their installation instructions are top-notch, but I've learned a lot working with that vise, too, and there's more to that vise than I gave it credit for.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Organizing space and mind, Part II: Guidelines for storage

 My apologies for the length of this entry. Since it went up, I've edited it considerably, but there's still a lot left.
I’ve seen two approaches for shop storage: Store anything that might conceivably be useful, or store as little as possible.

I knew a guy who built custom cabinets in a very small shop. Every job was planned out meticulously, and he ordered only what he needed for the job at hand, with a little extra. He didn’t keep scraps, and he returned full sheets. Throwing out scraps didn’t bother him: It had all been paid for with the materials deposit, so he wasn’t throwing any of his own money away. He ran a very profitable  business, and his shop ran VERY smoothly. It's not for everyone, but if you're trying to work in a tiny space, this strategy may be worth considering. 

I prefer to keep scraps and other things around. It’s a delicate balance sometimes, trying to figure out if it’s useful stuff, or borderline hoarding. But I make a point to shrink my collection of wood, and get rid of projects that I’ll never finish.

I’ve seen shops and art studios, and bicycle mechanic's basements, that have similar piles of special parts or materials, so I know I’m not alone. Some are much messier than mine. But in many cases, it's because the proprietors simply haven’t figured out efficient storage, or paid attention to organization. The end result is often a messy shop that’s less productive... and a bench that’s covered in crap.

I didn’t have an organized way to store things when I started. Things got dumped on the bench, and later got moved to another surface, and again if they were in the way. I ended up with a chronic case of the bumble-bees, buzzing around the shop looking for things, and my ability to work suffered horribly. My goal then became to keep an uncluttered workspace, but that wasn’t really enough either.

When I moved, I found a lot that I’d stored and forgotten, or didn’t properly put away, because I was more worried about storing everything, than I was about doing it well. I’ve since worked out some basic guidelines for good storage space in the shop. These are suggestions, not rules. Read them with the understanding that most workable systems will evolve over time, and with use.

1.) Everything must go in easily.

Think about bringing home groceries. Milk goes in the fridge, TP in the bathroom...  everything gets put right away. It’s all established routine, and it cuts down on clutter.

A shop should be no different, and there should be enough storage that there is a place for everything. If you have to move a project out of the way before you can get to the lumber rack, odds are good that the lumber will end up on the bench, or the floor.

I've also found it helpful to have a place to group supplies for a specific project, so I know exactly where those knobs or hinges are when I need them. If they end up kicking around, chances are pretty good they’ll get lost, and then the project will languish, and the shop will get clogged.

2.) Everything must come out easily.

It felt like I  had to unpack my lateral lumber racks whenever I wanted a particular board. That sucks when the other boards are 8/4 or bigger. Big and Tall lumber now gets leaned up in the corner, on end, because it's easier to sort through. I store short pieces (less than 4-5’) on deep shelves, ends out, so I can locate and pull out specific boards.

I've had similar misadventures with bins, milk crates, and other large, open storage. If something gets buried so deep that you don't feel like digging, it might as well not be there.

3.) Everything should be in evidence, and accessible.

Half of practicing good storage is to keep the working area free of clutter. The other half is setting up so that you can find what you need, get it out, and get back to work, without undue effort.

I want to be able to see what I have, and get to it, so that all of it remains useful. In some cases, it’s as simple as being able to see what’s on the shelves. In other cases, it may be labeling drawers, so that I know what’s in them, or at least bins for certain categories. 

4) Things should be stored in places that helps the shop flow.

When I was set up in my basement, my chop saw was on one wall, the lumber rack was on the opposite wall, and my bench was in between the two. Whenever I pulled a board off of the rack, I had to ‘helicopter’ it overhead, so I could put it on the bench, and then move it to the chop station. Not the greatest solution, and sometimes it was downright awkward. Now I put short-term rough lumber racks in line with or above the chop saw, to help things flow. Similar issues exist with sheet goods and table saw placement.

I’ll get into shop flow in part 3, but it’s worth mentioning here, because smart storage helps. If you trace out your workflow and your storage, and find yourself criss-crossing the shop a lot, you’re setting yourself up for trouble. This is doubly true for small shops: One unfinished project taking up the walkway can make parts of the shop inaccessible... even though they're right there. Three feet or three hundred, if you can't get to it, you're in trouble.

5.) Be safe.

Nothing heavy should be stored overhead, particularly lumber. If you’re on a ladder, heaving 12’ long, 8/4 oak over your head to get it out of the lumber rack, you’re asking for trouble.

Don’t store heavy ‘benchtop’ tools under the bench if you can help it. They’re light enough to be portable... but only barely. A strong and stable shelf at bench height will provide storage without risking injury. Moving them with a cart that’s also at that height is even better. Small, rolling workstations that match bench height are probably best, but that takes time, effort, and money, so it's something to pencil in as a long-term project.

6.) The storage area should be larger than you need.

Again, I think of the bike shop that I mentioned in the last entry. The building was huge, the work area was small. But everything had its place, and productive work flowed merrily along. And that’s the whole point.

If you’re setting up a new space in your basement or garage, and space is limited, dedicate 1/2 of the space for storage. There's a lot of normal stuff that goes into a shop, that shouldn't end up on your bench. But you also need space to put the things that aren’t planned for. If a broken chair arrives for you to fix, or a windfall of tools or lumber comes in from an unexpected event, it needs somewhere to go, so it doesn't clog up the work space.

To be Continued:

Space and Mind Part I
Space and Mind Part II
Space and Mind Part III
Space and Mind Part IV

Quick tip: improvised honing jig, Derek Cohen style.

I needed to adjust the bevel on my Japanese chamfer plane yesterday, and I was in a hurry to get it done so I could catch the train. So, I threw together this simple scrap wood honing jig. The wood wears down on the bearing edge, so the sharpening angle changes a little bit, but it was a quick and dirty way to get the job done, and it worked well. It's also a simple way to sharpen some of these hand-hammered irons that aren't perfectly flat or square, or small irons, because you can make these jigs as big or small as you need.

The source material for the idea is on Derek Cohen's website. He's big on making shop jigs and tools and so forth, and this is just a good idea. It works better for the scary sharp (sandpaper on glass or MDF) folks, because the wood block won't wear down quite so much if it's riding on the glass or MDF, next to the sandpaper. For woodworkers on a budget... this is a fast and easy way to get things done.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Organizing space and mind, Part 1

I used to work as a mechanic in a bicycle shop. I enjoyed the simple pleasure of making something functional with my own two hands. Since then I've met a lot of other bicycle mechanics and cyclists (there's a lot of overlap) who have huge collections of bicycles, parts and frames. The common theme seems to be that when people learn how to build and fix things, they realize that it doesn't matter how old some of this stuff is, it all works well if it's properly maintained, and a lot of it can be reused. So, they don't throw most of it away.

I've seen similar behavior in woodworkers (including myself): I'll take the hardware off before throwing this out. This table is trashed but the material is good for repairs. These old tools can be cleaned up and used... and this old laminated iron is going to sharpen up really well. Don't throw that out, it's almost fixed! (Rough translation: after 6 months, I still haven’t put in the “5 minute” half of a day that it would take to do the repair.) I like the chisels that I have, but these are going to be really, really cool once I clean and sharpen them. Would you believe someone left this perfectly good tree trunk out for the trash? Can you help me load it up?

I'm not going to mention that tuning up all of the old tools that I've collected would probably be a concentrated month's worth of work and sharpening. I'm also not going to mention the scraps that just never find a home. And I'm not going to balance the virtues of recycling versus the hazards of potentially hoarding. Not today, anyway.

But I do want to help out those poor souls who haven't been able to do anything because their workbench is covered in crap.


My very first shop was in the basement. I built a plywood cabinet to hold things, and a bench to work on. I put up a shelf or two, and hung hooks from the floor joists overhead. Whenever I re-organized the shop, the end goal was to find a better way to fit 30 pounds of crap into a 5 pound bag that I still hadn’t gotten around to fixing up. Fitting things into the space had a higher priority some days than getting finished work out.

I piled stuff under the bench and against the walls. I put new machines in where I had space... and eventually, this choked off productivity. After a few years I was forced to admit that the basement was too crowded to be anything more than tool storage. I paid more attention to building a bench and buying tools than how it was all going to function as a shop. And I really hadn’t considered storage. 

I can say from experience that when you’re short on space, a bigger shop sounds like a good solution to the problem. I can also say that it’s not the whole solution.

Years later, I realized that I was still having problems. I had moved from a  basement shop that was overcrowded, to a 2500 square foot shared space, with lots of light and high ceilings. I had towering shelves, an 8’ tall cabinet, plus an 8 foot long auxiliary table...  Lots of storage, lots of space. But  I was still having a hard time working effectively. So, I thought about other places, where the work moved more easily.

At school, we had just enough storage space around our bench for our tools, and one, or potentially two small projects that were in motion. That was it. Long term storage for lumber was up in the rafters. Space around the bench was reserved for tools and projects that were in motion. There was no room for anything else, let alone a collection of unattended projects and crap. Any storage in and around the work area was used for storing tools, or parts for current projects.

At the bike shop, I had a bench, a work stand, and a small box of tools that lived on the bench. Bikes were stored in boxes up against the wall, or hanging from hooks in the basement. The work area was for work, the storage area was for storage. Bicycles came out of storage to be worked on, and they went back into storage when they were done. The store had a significant amount of real estate, spanning a couple of buildings, and including basement space in all buildings. The vast majority of it is used for storage; the shop area is much smaller. Normal repair parts like tubes and shifters and cables and things were in a storage area that was directly adjacent to the shop area, but were not stored in the shop area. In fact, there was vary little in the shop area, if anything, that didn’t contribute to maintaining work flow.

The lesson was pretty clear: keep storage and work flow separate. I was still thinking like I was in my basement, and trying to fit as much in as possible. What I needed to do was to get the inactive stuff out of the active area, and keep it out. 

I moved the towering storage cabinet into an unused corner of the machine room, and I cleared (almost) everything out of the bench space, aside from my tool chest. Now I can park an auxiliary table there to hold parts, if I need. Or a pair of trestles to hold boards. I can roll an assembly table into place. I can pull a paper back drop down into that area for taking photos. Ultimately, I plan to clear out the shelves on the wall and use them for this purpose instead. The space is still evolving, but it’s a much more functional space now.

To do work, I typically need the following things in my work area: A bench, a place to keep my tools and supplies, and some auxiliary storage that will keep project parts safe and out of harm's way. This may include an assembly table, while the project is being assembled, or sawhorses.

I would never have been able to build this bookcase in my old cluttered space:

I’m going to go into strategies for dealing with and organizing storage in part 2, but if you find yourself staring at your work area this weekend, and you feel the need to rework the space, I’d start by dividing the room into ‘work’ and ‘storage’ areas. I don’t care if the storage area is all milk crates for now, as long as it’s off of your bench, and you can work, I call that progress.

To be continued...

Space and Mind Part I
Space and Mind Part II
Space and Mind Part III
Space and Mind Part IV

Simple Projects: 3-legged stool

So, as the year winds down, I'm in the middle of a few small projects. This stool is one of them, and it's made of a scrap of cherry that I've been sitting on since Fall of 2005. (edit: someone reading this pointed out to me that it was hilarious that I'd make a stool out after I'd already been sitting on it for 6 years.) The cherry was an off-cut from an 18" wide board that was being made into a 6-board blanket chest that I was building in school.

Well, after 6 years, and as I was going through the scrap bin and looking for ideas, I figured it was time to put this particular chunk to work. It's still being tweaked, because getting a carved wooden seat to feel comfortable can be a job in itself. But the job of carving out the seat was a joy. Why? Because the process of hogging it all out was really rough, and pretty ugly for a while. And it was the perfect way to remember that the only cut that really counts is the last one. The rest is only scrap. So, I roughed out the seat with big gouges and a big mallet, and textured the surface with a small gouge once the heavy lifting was done.

Shooting the holes for the stretchers was downright fun. After drilling the board and turning some loose-fitting tenons on the legs, I flipped the thing over and got the legs up in the air. I clamped some scraps across the legs, and drilled the holes through the legs to be parallel to these visual guides, (from each end) which was even easier than it sounds. I marked the scraps to determine the stretcher lengths, and cut the real stretchers accordingly. No precision required, and cutting a little over-length is a good thing, as they will be trimmed after gluing up.

This is my second attempt at a simple stool, and I learned my lessons well from the last one: If you're going to glue the whole thing up at once, and you're planning on wedging the tenons, it's better to make the tenons to fit a little loosely; tight-fitting joints become rub joints very quickly. Last time I did this, (given, it was a more involved stool, with 4 legs, 8 stretchers, and a more involved seat) I got most of the way through the glue up before some of the joints seized, and then it was Game Over. That stool ended up in the dumpster. A 22 oz. framing hammer couldn't drive those joints home, no matter how hard I tried, and eventually things just started to break. That was NOT a good experience. Gluing up 9 joints at once on a simple stool like this is harrowing enough without some of them seizing up on you. Loose tenons are key, as they give you the wiggle room to handle a glue up like this. Wedges make up the difference, and no gaps are left behind.

Having a lathe or some drill-powered tenon cutters are definitely easier than making round tenons by hand. And for under-sized tenons, the adjustability of the Veritas cutters is great.  Other than that, you'll want a spokeshave and/or a good sharp drawknife to make the legs and stretchers, and shape the edges of the seat, and a gouge or two to shape the seat itself.

This project was a lot more fun than I expected it to be... it's pure form, and easy joinery.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Inspiring words from the Media Lab

I pulled this from a PopSci interview with Joi Ito, who is the new director of MIT's media lab. I thought they were pretty inspiring words, and in line with a mentality that I'm learning more and more to embrace. 

MJ: How do you find people who can embrace this “just do it” mentality?

JI: You have to pick people who are inclined to think big and to be risk-takers but also tend to be very collaborative and open. And they really have to be self-learners, self-motivated, and people who question authority and think for themselves. Because a lot of people want to be told what to do and like to feel like they’re being productive by doing repetitive tasks.

MJ: Your investment fund is named Neoteny. What does that mean?

JI: “Neoteny” is the retention of childlike attributes in adulthood. As a child you learn, you have wonder, you’re curious, and every day’s a new day. But at some point you become an adult. And as an adult you focus on producing, reproducing, protecting. In the old days, the world didn’t change very much, so once you became a plumber, you didn’t really need to learn that much more about plumbing. Today you have to keep learning, and learning is somewhat of a childlike behavior. We want the Media Lab to be more like kindergarten and less like a lumber mill.

MJ: This acceleration of change in which we have to be lifelong learners to survive is presumably going to continue. This doesn’t slow down, does it?

JI: I don’t know for sure that it’s not going to get crazy or worse or that we’re not all go- ing to go insane. But I think the speed and chaos is only scary when you are trying to be in control. You need to give up the idea of control and be confident in your ability to pull things together as you go. There’s so much information now that you can’t get any more information overload. Drowning in 10 feet of water isn’t any different than drowning in a million feet. And if you can swim, it doesn’t matter how deep the ocean is. At some level, once you realize you’re in water that’s too deep to stand, you have to have a very different approach, which is basically: Plans don’t work, mapping doesn’t work. You need a compass and a trajectory and some values to figure it out as you go along.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A complaint

Earlier this week, I got my hands on a small run of early issues of Fine Woodworking, circa 1982. They're incredible, and it really makes me wonder what the hell has happened since.

There are a few sections that really stand out, just as a curiosity. Sections on sourcing parts and products, and so on. And sections where woodworkers were looking for solutions on one issue or another. These are sections that today would be served by online communities, so it makes sense that they're not there anymore. Another section is on book reviews. I think this is something that publishers should revisit. I think that if the monthly glossy pages would set aside a regular space to review books... old books, new books, whatever... that it would be a good thing. PWW recently did an issue on their 4 foot shelf of books, and I think this is progress, but I think that a regular part of the magazine, that says "Hey, we've been reading this, and you should go check it out," would be a good thing.

But the point of this entry is that I have a major complaint. These old issues were amazing, and the techniques and readers' tips and the articles were so much more in depth than almost anything that I see in print today. One article profiled a Vietnamese artisan who emigrated with nothing, and built his own tools while working for someone else, and opened up his own shop. Another profiled a man in Taiwan who was in his 70's, building amazing furniture in a factory setting by hand, and the wisdom that pounds out of the pages is amazing. There was a long article on the topic of Lap-strake boat building one month, and a follow up article the next month detailing a build by an amateur friend of the author, showing how it's done. A reader's tip explained how he made a tool for cutting out axles for wooden toys, by drilling out a piece of drill rod, cutting a plug cutter into one end, and a hole saw out of the other, and how he uses it.

I have some other articles from FWW from a few years later, detailing how to make a wooden clock: How it works, why it works, how to shape the gears, modified tools for making various components, etc. 

Part of my issue is that it really feels like the woodworking community has transitioned in 30 years from knowledgeable people who had a can-do attitude, and a functional craftsman's hands-on knowledge base that today's weekend amateurs just don't have. But I also feel like there must have been a huge weeding-out somewhere along the way, where the thinking, tinkering artisans that were clearly in evidence 30 years ago were lost. Maybe I've been reading all of the wrong message boards, and paying attention to the wrong magazines, I don't know.

I'm a little worried about this thought, that somehow the real thinking tinkers have gone the way of John Galt, and that we're on a serious downslide, as a community, or as a country.

Am I alone?

Checking in

I've been pretty busy, with a lot of little things.  I re-rowked and refinished a rocking chair for a friend. There's a case for a tall clock that I built. The case came in a kit that was woefully designed, and left little hope for success in the hands of most amateurs. So, I gave it a good going over, and some modification, and it's going to be delivered on Sunday. In exchange, I'm getting 10 more clock movements for clocks like the shelf clock that I just wrapped up. And an 8 foot wide baby gate is getting wrapped up soon for another friend whose baby just started crawling. In the near future, I'll be working on a couple of screen doors, building a small slab table to wrap up another job, and I'm going to start making 10 small shelf clocks, like the one I just wrapped up, to be put up for sale. A lot of little stuff. But I really don't mind. I'm busy. That's good enough for me for now.

Monday, October 24, 2011

First Show!

So, this past weekend, I teamed up with my shop mate Chris and participated in my first furniture show as an independent furniture builder. The show went well, and among other things, I was approached to take part in another show somewhere else in March. I'll get going on that process pretty soon.
The shelf clock has officially made its debut in the world. It was pretty popular. I'm very happy about this. The slab tables also got a lot of attention.

All of that aside, I can feel myself turning a corner on the promotions side of things. Generally, I'm not into self-promotion, but I have to admit that the process of getting out in front of people was really enjoyable. It's going to be a learning process, but I did have fun.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Completion! (Pretty much...)

According to the drawing, the clock should have a finial to be complete. That's in the works, but for now, it's pretty much done.

The new glass took roughly 7 hours to complete, between cutting, applying gold leaf, cleaning up the leafing, painting, etc.

For those of you in the area who want a better view, it'll be on display in Providence this weekend.

Oh, man...

This is the clock I've been working on lately.

So close to being done, and then the glass cracked when I was screwing in one of the blocks that holds it in place.



Sunday, October 16, 2011

Providence Furniture and Furnishings show, next weekend 10/21-23

Sorry for ongoing radio silence, computer's in the shop.

For those of you who are, will or could be in Providence next weekend, I'll have a booth at the Furniture and Furnishings show. Please come on out and say hi...

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A busy summer...

It's been a busy summer. I built another slab table, modified and assembled a kit for a clock that's still in process. On top of that, I took a honeymoon, got in touch with a writing group, got back in touch with a woodworking friend, and for the last few weeks I've been designing and building a really interesting shelf clock. More on that soon...

Last but not least, I've been getting my act together for the Providence Furniture and Furnishings show. I'll have a small booth there, the show is in 2 weeks, from 10/21-23.

More soon...

Monday, July 11, 2011

2 tables for sale, and $500 up for grabs

I'm experimenting with social networking as a sales tool.

The two slab tables are for sale! And 10% goes to the person who finds me a buyer.

Details here:

Friday, July 8, 2011

Gratuitous wood porn.

So, I've shown pictures of the slabs already. But now that they're finished, and shiny, and the shellac is providing all of the optical benefits that I wanted, the tables look really, really good. So, I felt like showing off.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Hand plane use in a modern shop

Last week I found an example of one of those times when nothing else will do but a traditional tool.

The curly maple for these tables is very curly. But the larger piece was a little bit wound.

We don't have a functioning jointer that's large enough for this board, even if it wasn't highly figured. And I'm not dumb enough to shove the thing through my DW planer and hope for the best. We do have a drum sander. It's not great, but it works well enough. Like thickness planers, what you put in, is what you get out... only thinner. I needed to flatten one face of the board before the drum sander would make a parallel flat surface. So I turned to my hand planes, and a couple of T-track scraps to use as winding sticks.

Most of my planes are bedded at 45 degrees, and they made for a lot of tear-out in either direction. But then I pulled out my high angle smoother, which is bedded at 50 degrees, started working at an angle (as opposed to in-line with the grain) and found the wood to be a lot more cooperative.

A smoother (short-ish plane) isn't what most folks would consider to be the ideal tool for jointing. Something longer would be called for, etc. This is true, but even with that knowledge, the smoother worked well enough. I just wanted to take the wind out before going to the drum sander, without getting a lot of tear-out. And it worked just fine for that. It took me a good hour or so to get this particular slab under control... and that was just planing down two high corners, so I could take it to the drum sander.

Happy with the performance of the high angle plane, I sent a quick email to Lie-Nielsen after I was done, inquiring about the rumored 55 degree #3 smoother. I got back the following from Kirsten:

"Good morning, James.

Excellent timing!  We actually just released our 55 degree frog for the No. 3.  It should be appearing on our website within the next week or so.  The cost is $85."

So, for those of you who have been waiting/hoping... they're now available, and will be on their website this week.

Of course, that frog would only help me if I had a L-N #3, so the real cost will be a lot higher when I get there.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Wood porn

So, with a few months worth of solid work behind me, I have time to revisit the slab tables again. They're coming along nicely, too. More details soon enough, but I was impressed enough with the wood, and with the camera in my phone, that I had to share.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Quick tip: Arbor nut retrieval tool

The theme today seems to be things to do with string. Oh, well. :)

Once in a while, I'm swapping blades on the table saw, and I drop the arbor nut. The Sawstop has a shroud which dumps into a dust collection hose, meaning I have to get under the saw, take stuff apart, and get messy. It's a time waster and a hassle. So, this is a simple tool I made with some mason's twine, a rare earth magnet, and a magnet cup.

String goes through the screw hole, and a knot is tied to keep it attached. Then add the magnet. Holding the other end of the string, drop the magnet in after the nut, and fish it out of the saw. Very easy.

Tying the knot

So, as a result of getting married in October, I had a new safety issue: my wedding band. No wearing rings in the shop! This is something I learned in the Army, because they had safety posters everywhere of a hand with a de-gloved finger. If you're squeamish, don't look any further into the topic. Just take my word on it that you shouldn't wear rings around machinery.

The real problem for me isn't taking the ring off, it's where to keep the ring. If I put it down, sure as hell I'll forget where I put it, leave without it, and never find it again. My solution was simple: I wear a cord around my neck, and when I'm in the shop, I tie the ring to the cord. But there's a simple way to perform this operation without taking the cord off, that never fails to confuse people... and impress them.  So, it's a combination safety tip and party trick.

I took the cord off, for purposes of illustration. But I typically do this while wearing the cord around my neck.

Step one: pull a loop through the ring.

Step two: pull the loop over and around the ring.

Step three: pull down on the ring.

Ta daaaa...

Monday, May 23, 2011

Biesemeyer Fence Micro-Adjust

I love my Biesemeyer fence just as much as the next guy. It's solidly square, reliable, durable, and, well... it's just solid. But I got tired of doing little love taps with a fist, or my knuckles, or slapping it a bit, to try to move it just a smidge, or a hair, or some other nonsensical invented dimension that would work. I really needed a way to do small adjustments. I saw an attempt by Rockler to make a magnetic micro-adjuster, but all the reviews I read said it was junk and worth skipping. So, I did some head scratching, and I'm pretty happy with the solution I came up with.

I already have T-track inlaid into the extension table on both my SawStop, and my Delta contractor saw. I put it in at the recommendation of Jim Tolpin's book, as it helps with saving a fence position. (Bolt a block of wood to the T-track, snugged up against the fence, and you can always move the fence back to that setting.) I've also used the stop block to set measurements for long cross-cuts using a short miter bar. So, I put together this simple adjuster, using some all-thread, 2 wooden blocks, a knob, a threaded brass insert, and a plastic nut... which happens to be included with the packaging for the T-track.

The plastic nut is there to keep from scratching up the fence, but isn't entirely required. A scrap of wood would do. And in some cases, where the fence has to be closer to the blade, I need to use a block of wood to span the gap between adjuster and fence anyway.

The rod is threaded 1/4-20, which is 20 threads per inch. So, one revolution moves the fence 1/20 of an inch. (.05") And 1.25 turns gives 1/16".

The knob has 4 internal ribs and 12 external nubs. 1/20 of an inch, divided by 12 (moving one nub at a time) moves the fence 1/240" (.004") so moving from the peak of a nub to the bottom of the hollow between nubs is ~.002. I'm sure I could get more anal if I wanted to, but .002" is a pretty fine adjustment for a table saw.

Beyond that, if I want to get more precise I'll have to keep my saw blades a lot cleaner.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Sjobergs hold down

One of my problems with my bench is that, like many other benches from Sjobergs, it has a skirt, which makes it had to clamp things down to the surface. It's a wide-ish skirt, so I can clamp close to the edge of the bench. But past 3 inches or so, there's a hollow, so my regular F-clamps don't register properly. I thought about flipping the bench over, and simply gluing in a few strips of extra wood. But that means either flipping it with the Emmert still attached, which is heavy, or taking the Emmert off, and it's heavy. And then there's the need to re-drill all of the dog holes, and hoping like hell that the new lamination doesn't cause the top to start warping again. That's the last thing I need... so far, it's been behaving itself. So I broke down the other day and bought the hold-fast that Sjobergs makes for the Elite bench.

I would rather buy a holdfast from Veritas... or from Gramercy, even. I have a couple of Gramercy hold fasts at home, they're great. But the bench has 1" holes, instead of the 3/4" that everyone else seems to like to use.  I suppose I could find someone to custom forge me a set of serious, old-school holdfasts... but that takes much more time and planning than an impulse buy.

The Sjobergs hold down is pretty stout, and the just-under 1" rod is actually solid steel, instead of a plastic filled pipe, like the smaller version they make for their smaller benches. It's pretty clear that the whole unit is designed to be bolted through a thinner surface, hence the flange, and the threads on the bottom. (Though the nut for doing so isn't included, which seems weird to me.) In that context, it makes sense to have the arm slide up and down. But since I'm dropping the thing into a hole in the benchtop, it seems a bit redundant. It works fine, it's just quirky and weird. In the end, it works fine, so whatever.

Either way, it works, which is, I guess, all that's required. I do wish they had used a nice grippy wooden handle, instead of a plastic one, which isn't so grippy. What's the use having such a stout clamp if you can't grip the handle hard enough to really get down on it?

So, as a tool, it works as should be expected. But the design is somehow less than I expected... which is fitting, I guess, since the bench started out the same way.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Shortening the bench

After almost 8 months of living with it, I finally trimmed the bench back to be even with the end of the pattern vise. One of my regular vise operations is to cut something to length with a hand saw, and that, to me, means doing it to the let of the vise. I like my cuts as clean as possible, so starting them 3 or more inches form the vise was really not working out. I was able to do some cuts with the vise at 90 degrees, but it was just... less intuitive. So, I sectioned a couple of inches out. I still need to recess the bolts that hold on the end cap, to protect my saw teeth, but process was a quick one.

It felt a little weird cutting that segment out, given how much other wood has already been removed from that end of the bench. There was a little voice in my head that was wondering if I was slowly but surely going to keep nibbling away at the bench top until there was nothing left. For now, I think I'm done.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Evolving techniques with the Domino

So, I apologize for neglecting this thing. It's been a busy spring, and I've been blessed with some really enjoyable work. The downside is that I've been busy as hell, and haven't really had the time to spend blogging about it.

Here are a few of the highlights of some of the process improvements that I've been working on. 

---Improved Domino technique---

Ron Wenner's Domino plate is great. And it was very useful to clamp the plate directly to the work I was doing. But I found that I had to turn the machine off after every mortise to adjust the clamp. So I drilled and tapped holes for a chunk of T-track to use as a third hand, to hold one end of the clamp in place while I tightened it.

That really helped with clamping more easily, but it revealed one fundamental problem: The marks on the bottom of the tool weren't properly aligned with the actual center of the mortise. Every joint I made was slightly mis-aligned by more than 1/16". I was less than pleased.

The only solution I could come up with, after much head scratching, was to erase and lay out new alignment marks. So I made a test piece to show the discrepancy, and I got out some WD-40, some wet-dry sandpaper, and erased the old marks. I used the test piece to lay out the new lines, and scribed them in pretty deeply. At this point, any discrepancies I have are the result of sloppiness in laying out my markings, which means my errors are now in the 1/64" range, which is much better.

---On using the Emmert---

I can't say enough about the Emmert vise. It's been great for all of the regular things, but the ability to go Horizontal has been huge in conjunction with the Domino.