old is the new new

I am slowly realizing that “getting into woodworking” actually means that you “get into,” or more properly stated, “fall into” different woodworking niches and rabbit holes. I am also finding that one rabbit hole begets other holes. As someone interested in hand tool woodworking, I was presented early on with one particularly deep burrow: hand tool restoration. Several prominent internet hand tool orientated woodworkers advocate shaping up an old hand plane as a inexpensive and good way for beginners to get into the craft. Chris Schwarz uses a mix of new and old hand tools including a vintage jack plane, and I’m pretty sure Paul Sellers can build a timber frame Taj Mahal using only an old tuned up #4 and a hunk of wood with a chisel shoved through it.

Hunks of wood aside, using vintage tools makes a lot of sense for the budget conscious beginning woodworker. There are some great hand tool manufactures out there, but the stuff can be downright expensive and out of the range for a lot of people. Vintage tools made back in the day are often of good quality but there is a catch (there is always a catch). Old tools that have been expertly restored can be expensive as well. So, the true bargains are for tools that are not ready for use. Starting with vintage tools that are dull, dinged, and rusty can mean, with an additional time investment, a great tool can be had on the cheap.

My dad had an old hand plane (a Montgomery Ward branded #3) and hand brace (Stanley) chilling out in his barn. We worked on getting the plane up and running (rust removal and sharpening) and it was the tool that got me hooked on hand tools (it’s the featured image of this post). I restored the hand brace myself, which was really just in need of some light rust removal, oiling, and refinishing the wood handles. Both tools were on the cheaper side of things when sold new, but they worked great after some elbow grease. I was ready to move on to bigger challenges.

Vintage hand plane
Isn’t it beautiful?

My dad picked up an old Stanley #5 jack plane from the local flea market. He got it for himself but gave it to me after I drooled all over it. Using Patrick Leach’s awesome site on Stanley hand planes, I was able to ID it as a type 14 made between 1929 and 1930. It was rusty as hell, the sweetheart blade was crooked and dull as a butter knife, and the rosewood handles were painted orange with the back tote missing a large chunk. I pretty much followed Paul Seller’s video on restoring a hand plane. I did all the work myself except for the replacement rear tote I purchased. It was messy but I was able to take an unusable hunk of rust to a usable, and kinda beautiful in its own way, tool.

Restored jack plane
I kinda miss the orange (no I don’t)

Besides finding the process very satisfying, you learn a ton from restoring tools. I know how they work so much better than I would have if I had just bough them and started working. I am a better sharpener because of having to take a blade from super dull to super sharp. You also get a chance to customize them a little more. For example, I have a new #6 Veritas. I really like how it cuts, but I like the feel of the planes I restored better because I used an oil and wax finish on the handles. It a small thing, but it matters when using a tool for a long time. Also, I actually like the vintage steel blades a little better because they are quicker to sharpen.

Since that jack plane I have restored a #4 (type 13) for myself and a #5 (type 19) for my dad. I have also done a Craftsman rabbet plane, a Stanley sweetheart no.80 cabinet scraper, and a wood side-beading plane. My backlog includes a couple of block planes, draw knives, and one more side-beading plane. I am also mildly obsessed with the thoughts of restoring old axes and saws. The trouble is finding the time to go to flea markets or lurk on EBay for deals, let alone the time to work on tools while also wanting to do actual woodworking.

Craftsman rabbet plane taking cool shavings
The rabbet plane is so much fun to use

And that’s just one rabbit hole, have you even looked into wood turning?!?

 

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progress not perfection

The process of hand cutting dovetails for my small wall cabinet build has been interesting. It has been several years since I took my box making class, which was the last time I cut this joint. At first I considered not using dovetails at all, but decided that it was clearly the proper joint to use on the carcass. Also, the only way I am going to get comfortable cutting dovetails is to actually make some.  There is, however, a problem with that strategy. My first dovetails are probably going to suck. Now, I could practice on scrap wood or something, I guess, but that’s not how I roll. If I’m gonna cut dovetails they might as well be on something real. So, I walked right up to the boards and cut my first joint in several years. Not surprisingly, it was just plain shitty. Most of the shittiness was based on me out thinking myself. I tried the trick where you cut a shallow rabbet into the tail board to help line it up to the pin board for marking and it was a disaster. The rabbet ended up being a little off square which caused a humongous gap. After taking a break and getting my nerve back up I tried again. On the second joint I simplified things by dropping the rabbet deal and it was a lot better. Not good, still super gappy, but the best dovetail I had ever cut nonetheless.

The second, less shitty one
I was pretty damn happy with myself. So much so that I posted a picture of said joint on my Instagram account. I was typing in the hashtag #progress when the suggestion #progressnotperfection popped up. By the looks of it, on Insta at least, this hashtag is used mostly by sweaty people who have just completed a workout. Although I have been described as “sweaty” before, the rest of it didn’t really fit. However, I still went ahead and used that hashtag because it really resonated with me. Hand cutting dovetails without any saw guides is essentially using hand tools freehand. I will not be perfect on the first or third attempt, if ever. But I should not be striving for perfection, I should strive to be better, to improve each time I perform some action or process. I am going to try to apply this is all parts of my woodworking, and to remember it’s a journey.
tl;dr: My woodworking is kinda shitty right now. My goal is to make it less shitty.

today’s special

I took a long and winding road to find my true professional calling. Just like Wayne in Wayne’s World, I have an extensive collection of name tags and hair nets. A major section of this winding road was my time in culinary school and cooking professionally. It was fun but, as a person who doesn’t like shouting or working under pressure, it was not a great fit. Those traits are what led me to librarianship, btw. One of the things I did truly like from my cooking days was setting part or all of the menu. Normally it went a lot like this: 

  • Go to the walk-in cooler 
  • See what the heck is in there
  • Try to figure out what things would taste good when cooked together 

It was all about being creative while using up the stock on hand. That was the fun of it. Anyone can place an order for specific recipes, but it’s a whole ‘nother level to make something good on the fly with limited selection. So, bringing this finally to woodworking, I thought it would be cool to try to recreate this type of thing when I went to the wood store to get lumber for my small wall cabinet build. I like getting lumber at the Ann Arbor Reuse Center which has a portion dedicated to Urban Wood, a program that makes lumber from area trees felled from storms or removed by homeowners. It’s more expensive than buying rough lumber from a hardwood dealer but I like the unique selection and the chance to use lumber from local trees. Also, just between you and me, I’m kinda scared of full blown lumber dealers. I mentioned the thing about yelling and pressure, right? 

My plan for the cabinet walking into the store was smallish (~ 12×20 inches, 6 in. deep) with drawers on roughly the bottom fifth and a door over the rest. I did not have specific wood species in mind, which was what I thought would be the fun part. I did know I wanted the carcass to be relatively straight quiet grain, with the door fronts and back boards in a contrasting wood. That sounds simple, right? Well, let’s just say my seemingly simple plan became more complicated in practice. I had a very hard time coming up with a combo that was contrasting, but, like, not too contrasting. I wasn’t looking for something like a walnut and maple pairing, but something with more subtle color contrast and similar texture. It was quite hard to find that elusive combo, and the wood store became less fun after about 45 minutes. I fell in love with a piece of elm for the door fronts, and eventually picked cherry for the carcass. As the price of my purchase grew, I dropped the plan for the door. The open shelf will look better anyway (I keep telling myself). 

The fancy plan for the cabinet. I changed the dimensions but not the propositions (3:5)

My takeaway from this experience is mainly: being picky about color and grain takes a lot of time and the ability to visualize the project. Maybe I will get better as I get more experience but there probably is no shortcut. Now I know what you’re thinking, spending a lot of time shopping for wood doesn’t seem that rough. I agree, but when I start to build larger projects I will have to go to a dedicated hardwood dealer to save money. Panic attack, here we come. Having said that, I also have to make the point that the time spent picking out the material has paid off in the shop. I have long stretches of mostly straight grain cherry with awesome little pin knots and pitch streaks. I think (hope) the elm will look great in the door fronts and back boards as well. 

The picks are in: cherry (top) and elm
I knew that hand tool woodworking would be an exercise in patience, something I don’t have in excess. Now I know that even the lumber buying process will be a test of patience and on the fly planning. Hopefully my developing skills are at a point where this patience will pay off and the recipe will come together. 

awesome bench

One of the first things you need to start woodworking is a good bench, they say (“they” meaning most everyone who gives woodworking advice on the Internet). It makes sense, I mean, you have to build your project on something, right? My first project was a bench, of sorts, a milkman’s workbench to help with holding work on my rickety porch table. I didn’t trick it out to the level it was meant to be, never adding the wood screws in front or putting on finish. I did add a veneer press to act as a sort of end vice but it never worked that well and finally kinda fell off.

The people who owned our house before us left several things behind including the world’s smallest oven, stained carpet (seriously, what the hell was that?!?), and a high bench-looking monstrosity in the garage. When I first saw this “bench” I scoffed, thinking it was about as useful as the stained carpet (was it soda? Lord, I hope it was soda). No, I thought, this bench (Shitty Bench, as I call him) with its wobbly construction and nails poking out at odd spots, this is not a bench fit for a True Woodworker. Now, I was not above using it, it was after all, already there there and I had stuff to do, but the whole time I was planning for the Awesome Workbench. I bought books, watched and even bought some videos, and fretted. I finally decided I would go with an English bench style mostly following Chris Schwarz’s design but incorporating a lot of the hand tool techniques (especially using nails in the construction) I learned in Richard Maguire’s videos. I was so happy how awesome Awesome Bench would be. So I started building… and here I am, still… building…

Nice shavings, shitty bench

As all this went down I discovered something about my woodworking self. I don’t like shop projects all that much, well, at least shop bench projects. And, as much as I KNOW I will love having a proper flat, stable work surface, I just can’t get into the work of building it as much as I am into building other stuff. Last December my nephews helped me flip over Shitty Bench and saw some height off it, greatly increasing its efficiency and greatly reducing my back pain when planing. So, while Shitty Bench is still shitty, it is usable and remains my primary work surface.

The awesomeness slowly takes shape… very slowly…

I really want to start building a smallish wall cabinet by the beginning of July. This gives me the rest of this month to finish up some DIY related stuff and maybe make some progress on Awesome Bench. But who are we kidding? I would just rather spend my limited time in the shop working on stuff destined to leave it.

Featured image is from Mendel’s and Landauer’s house books, as discussed on Lost Art Press blog

learnin’

I thought it would be interesting for me and my nonexistent readers if I reflected a bit on some resources that I have found helpful in trying to become a better woodworker.

Online learning resources and videos have been invaluable in helping me figure out stuff. When I was in my just-watching-videos phase, I watched a lot by The Wood Whisperer. And by “a lot,” I mean I have watched pretty much Marc’s entire catalog of free content. Recently I joined The Wood Whisperer Guild by purchasing a set of instructional videos on building a large outdoor table. The instructor for this course was Matt Cremona and, although my mostly hand tool approach differs from Marc and Matt, I really enjoyed Matt’s instruction style and got a lot out of the series.

Speaking of hand tools, after I realized that I wanted to work with mostly non-electron burning equipment, I shifted a lot of my focus to content about this type of approach. Oddly enough, or maybe not oddly at all, my favorites in this area happen to be English woodworkers. I watch every free video Paul Sellers puts out, if only to watch him work so effortlessly. I also heavily relied on his approach to restoring old hand planes as an affordable method to add some needed tools to my kit. If I had to pick a favorite online instructor, it would have to be Richard Maguire, AKA The English Woodworker. I have watched all of his free content as well as purchased a few of his classes, including one on making an English-style workbench and on sharpening. I love his approach and his penchant for using English swear words that I have to google to understand.


Books also play an important part in my beginning education, particularly a couple from Lost Art Press: The Anarchist’s Tool Chest by Christopher Schwarz and The Essential Woodworker by Robert Wearing. I want to write reviews of both of these books at some point so I will not go into them too much here, but both have been helpful in different ways. I really enjoy Chris Schwarz’s writing style, which I was introduced to at the Lost Art Press blog (and this blog too). Informed by research and historical examples, his book focuses on the smallish kit a hand tool woodworker actually needs. Wearing’s book is aimed at hand tool woodworkers without access to a formal teacher. It’s just downright awesome. I honestly feel it explains how to flatted a board with a hand plane better than any video I have ever watched. Wearing is a true teacher with the talent to translate that skill to the written word. That’s a rare skill (e.g.: every textbook ever).

The hand tool box making class I took in 2014, which I mentioned in my first post, was the single most important thing so far in my early journey as a woodworker. The instructor’s name was Ken and he looked kinda like Sam Elliot (but didn’t appreciate me yelling “Hell’s coming with me!!” all the time). The class was held in a horribly lit middle school shop, but the surroundings and my constant desire for a Coors didn’t stop me from loving every minute of the class. Ken taught us to sharpen and how to properly use chisels, saws, and files. He even let us use his Lie Nielsen dovetail saw (which I couldn’t even get started at first). He demonstrated the sound wood makes when it is planed with the gain as opposed to against. That blew my mind! We had tea breaks, a tradition I keep up in my own shop. He showed me that woodworking can be a quiet, relaxing, artistic endeavor. As a librarian with a natural fear of loud noises, I liked that a lot.

Experience is, or course, the greatest teacher of all. I try to get as much of that as I can even if the project is not all that woodworky. For example, we are currently in the process of turning a small space in our house into what my wife calls the “Kardashian Closet.” This glorious manifestation of our selfishness needs some wide shelves. I could use plywood and be done with it, but I’m using poplar boards instead so I can get more experience making panels, something to date I have not exactly hit out of the park. It has also given me a chance to experiment adding a bit more power into my woodworking lineup, like a miter saw, trim router, and biscuit joiner. As much as I enjoy DIY, I hope to work in more woodworking projects in the near future because, no matter how much I watch and read, I do not truly see improvement unless I do. And I still need a proper workbench…