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.

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.