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…

origin

Every superhero has an origin story. I am no different, other than I do not exactly qualify as a superhero (unless the ability to eat my weight in Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies counts as a super power). I started my woodworking journey in 2013 when I built some simple cedar planter boxes for our apartment balcony with my dad in his shop. Until that point I mostly watched videos on building stuff. I know it seems silly, but those planters really flipped a switch for me. I designed them (took a chance and went rectangular), made the decision on pocket hole joinery (don’t judge), and did most of the cutting and assembly. They went together, they looked pretty good, they did not fall apart… I was hooked. The problem was, except on weekends when went home to visit my parents, I didn’t really have any tools and certainly didn’t have a shop in which to put them in. So, I was back to watching videos. Even worse, my planter boxes stood sentry outside my sliding glass door, mocking me.

The following stir-crazy filled winter, my wife bought me a birthday present in the form of a woodworking class taught through the local adult education program. There were two to pick from: one on building a step-stool with power tools and one building a dovetailed box using only hand tools. I went with the hand tool class because I thought that was a more apartment-friendly direction. I was hesitant to do anything too noisy or dusty on my second floor balcony despite the fact that my neighbor insisted on playing his mandolin and singing horribly on his balcony quite often.

During the second session of the class, I was paring away waste between my poorly cut dovetails when the instructor said that the class was almost over. I looked up from my work, eyes adjusting to the dimly lit middle school shop. How could class be almost over? To add a bit of context here, I am not one to get really absorbed in things, especially when it is after a long day at my day job. No, in normal circumstances I would have been counting the minutes before I got to go home and would wait to try the things I learned on a day off. But not this night. Something about the action of the sharp blade on the wood, the ability to create a well defined shape using nothing but a chisel, the quiet progress… I didn’t want to stop.

IMG_0750
My dovetailed box. I call him Gappy. 

I took the plunge and started buying some hand tools of my own. My workbench was a rickety folding table and “shop” time was sometimes cut short because of snow, rain, or the singing neighbor (seriously, a damn mandolin?!?), but I managed to get some stuff built. I finished my box and built a milkman’s workbench to help my work holding situation a bit. In 2015 we were lucky enough to move into a house of our own, where I now have pretty much taken over our one-car garage as a cluttered, dark, but otherwise wonderful and mandolinless shop. Making improvements to our house takes up a lot of my spare time but I have built a few cutting/cheese boards and a small bathroom cabinet as I try to improve my fledgling woodworking skills (maybe one day they will be skillz?) while making things for my family.

I am writing this blog for a few reasons. One is I miss blogging. I used to have one focused on librarianship and archives and miss the act of writing how I want to write (referencing 80’s movies, cursing, bad parenthetical humor, etc.). The other is, I want to make sure I can look back. It is awesome if you stumble across this blog and find it interesting, but to be honest it is more for me and my desire to document my progress, my projects, and my woodworking thoughts. Maybe someday I will look back on these initial posts and laugh at what little I knew as I contemplate building my next kick­ass highboy (whatever the hell that is). But, for right now at least, I am content to try to make stuff good enough to put in our home.