I’ve written a little bit about my shop space in the past. In addition to the workroom, which I use for layout and handwork and finishing, the bigger tools I inherited are stored against the back wall of the garage. The two cars that are parked in the space present an obstacle, as well as the shuttling back and forth through the basement door from space to space. Still, I have been quite happy with the space I am lucky enough to have. That doesn’t stop me from dreaming of the future, though. Here at school, I am very limited. I have finished up a few projects here at school for which I completed the bulk of the work at home. I brought up a few tools that I can manage with, but it is difficult to do work without a solid work surface or a good way to clamp parts down. Fortunately, I see these four years of college as the most limiting to my woodworking. After graduation, I’ll have my own apartment to start, and I should be able to fit a small bench and my chest of hand tools in the space (a connection to my last two posts). Hand tools are small, quiet, and relatively clean in comparison to power tools, so shouldn’t be a bother to roommate, neighbor, or landlord. Additionally, working by hand would force me to keep my projects small and develop real woodworking skills. Finally, if I get used to working by hand, that would save me a lot of space and money (and danger) on large power tools in the future. Even if I end up working primarily by hand in the more distant future, I think I will always try to have a bandsaw in my shop space. It can be argued that the bandsaw is the most useful of all power tools, as it can be used for rip, resaw, and curve cutting, plus many other more creative applications. It saves a lot of time and effort on tasks that would be mundane to do by hand. If I’m very lucky with my landlord I will fix up the one I have and use it in my first apartment. Otherwise, it will definitely be incorporated into my next more substantial shop space, which I expect will be in a small basement room or garage. It will probably be a utility room that I repurpose for woodworking (similar to my current situation), although hopefully everything can be fit into a single space. The ultimate dream might never be achieved, but it would consist of a dedicated room in the house or a separate outbuilding. It would be well insulated for temperature and sound and brightly lit. It would have a window to let in natural light and plenty of space for a large workbench. It’s nice to dream, but I have a lot of work ahead of me before I get to that point.
Besides his skills, a woodworker’s most important asset is his tool collection. Historically, a good hand plane would be worth the equivalent of several week’s wages for a journeyman craftsman, so he needed a way to protect it from damage and theft and carry it around with all his other tools. Therefore, the final test for an apprentice before he ventured out on his own was to build a quality tool chest. This chest would be built of the highest quality and was meant to last for a very long time.
I’m at the point in my woodworking journey that I want to build myself a tool chest in the very near future. I’ve accumulated a number of tools, many of which are very valuable in either monetary or sentimental terms. They are strewn around my shop, vulnerable to damage or rust, and often end up contributing to very significant bench clutter when I am in the midst of a project. Also, it won’t be long before I am living on my own and likely moving around somewhat frequently, so a chest would help me with transport. A chest has limited space and forces its maker to consider which tools are most important and used most frequently.
I’ve considered making a chest ever since I read an article by Mike Pekovich in Fine Woodworking Magazine. His chest was only big enough to hold his most important tools. It was small enough to carry out to his car but also set down nicely on a rolling stand for use in his shop. And, it is a beautiful design that shows off his woodworking skill. I could build a replica of his chest, and I considered that for a while, but I decided that I would prefer to design my own.
I know it will have to hold three handsaws, a set of chisels, a few hand planes, layout tools, sharpening equipment, and other miscellaneous tools. Many tools won’t fit in the chest such as clamps, but that is unavoidable. Also, since I do use machines in my work, they will have to remain separate. I do hope that having a chest with the most critical tools for woodworking all grouped together will encourage me to work by hand more and build the skills that aren’t developed or practiced when using a machine. Practically, when I’m living in a small apartment I might not be able or allowed to use the large machines and therefore forced to make do with what I decide to include in my chest.
I sketched out an idea in my notebook more than two years ago now and really haven’t returned to it since. I’m sure that as I get closer to actually building a chest the design will change based on the tools I wish to put in it.
I’ll leave you with perhaps the most famous tool chest ever, built by the piano maker H.O. Studley. It holds more than 300 tools in a package only 39 by 18 by 9 inches.
Every week this semester I have written about a project I built that has marked a milestone in my development as a woodworker. The stool that I wrote about last week was built primarily over Christmas break, so it was my last major completed project. Going forward, I am going to write about important pieces I plan to build in the future. Of all the ideas I have, building myself a solid workbench is the most important and appealing to me. It may not be something I get around to for many years, but it will almost certainly do the most to further my development as a woodworker.
Although I am very grateful for a suitable space in which to work at home, it is far from ideal. My shop is centered in what we call “the workroom” at home. It’s a space in the basement that has always housed the furnace, handyman materials, and odds and ends. Below the pegboard of tools is a bench built into the wall about 2.5 feet deep with a top made of old dimensional lumber. It was never meant to be used for woodworking, but rather a spot for the homeowner to make the occasional repair. I’ve always done the best I can with the space. I built my lighthouses there years ago. In more recent years I do most of the layout, handwork, assembly, and finishing of my projects there. I’ve reorganized the pegboard over the bench to neatly hold far more important tools. And I’ve built jigs, such as the Moxon vise I talked about in an earlier post, and a bench hook for hand planing pieces of wood, which are critical to my work and make the bench less of an obstacle. Its major shortcomings are in flatness and space. A work space should be flat and smooth in order for woodworking to turn out well. Flatness is important for assembling pieces straight and square, and for ensuring that pieces of wood are actually flat and don’t just seem to be because they contact the surface fully. A smooth surface prevents carefully shaped surfaces from being damaged as they move around. Second, space: I can’t take a long piece of wood into the space to work on it without getting very creative to figure out a way to hold it. This may seem like a good thing, but more often than not the solution risks damage to the piece, the tool, or me.
I’m very excited to build myself a bench that won’t have these shortcomings. I don’t know what it will look like, but I do know it will have a solid, thick, hardwood top, be built on a timber base that I can easily tear down, and have clamping mechanisms built into it to help me hold my work. I want it to be simple, just like most everything I build, so every feature I build in will have a purpose. Building a bench on which to work every day is one of the dream projects for a craftsman, and although it may take me years to find the money, the time, and the space to do so, I am excited by the prospect and enjoy dreaming up the perfect design in the meantime.
One of my first posts this semester was about a stool I built a few years ago, my first attempt at a fine woodworking project. In the years since then, I have come a long way in building my woodworking experience and skill set. Here at school, though, there aren’t too many opportunities to do woodworking. My skill set has stopped improving, and there are lots of ideas brewing in my head. So, I decided to tackle one of the shortcomings of my dorm room over Thanksgiving break because I was so looking forward to making use of my time at home with my tools. The room has some rather tall shelves in one corner. They offer plenty of storage space but are just a little too tall to reach comfortably, especially for someone of below average height like me. I got frustrated with having to carry my chair over to the shelves to use it to give me a boost. That is so minor a complaint, something I could so easily deal with, but I got to dreaming. My vision was relatively basic, and fit the general concept of a stool. I saw four legs connected by horizontal pieces that supported a top. But I began to refine my design from there. I have reached a point where my woodworking is no longer defined by rigid plans and copycat ideas; although, like everyone else, I am certainly inspired by the work of others. In this case, I thought back to an article I read in a magazine a few years ago about building a table with a so-called “floating top.” The top would only appear to float, of course. The illusion happens because the support is directly under the middle of the top, meaning that the top is not supported around the perimeter of the piece as is typical with table-esque structures. I was excited about the idea at the time I first saw it and with the stool had an opportunity to try it out with my own twists. I started the construction process over the Thanksgiving break but only got through the milling and dimensioning of the lumber before I ran out of time. Come Christmas the pieces were ready for me, though, and I had a more refined design concept in my head. I decided that even though a stool is a very utilitarian object, and one that gets stepped on and kicked and carried around all the time, I wanted it to have visual appeal. I selected one of my nicer pieces of cherry with nice bands of sapwood and glued it together to create a beautiful top. I also decided to indent the corners of the top so that the tops of the legs could be more visible, and I cut a significant bevel on the underside of the top. Less visibly, the legs and stretchers are joined with fairly complicated mortise and tenon joints, and the floating top is supported by three cross pieces that fit with sliding dovetails into the frame. That’s a lot of woodworking terminology in one place, but what it boils down to is that I was able to pack a lot of skills into a very small project, and by focusing on making them to the best of my ability the stool is rock solid as well as being easy on the eyes. This stool represents the progress I’ve made in woodworking since I made that first stool. With this one, I not only proved my ability to make something to fulfill a practical purpose for my own benefit (as I was able to do before), but I was also able to benefit my someone else (my roommate) with what I made, both practically and beautifully. The sense of self-sufficiency that comes with that is wonderful.
I’ve been building boxes for just about as long as I’ve been woodworking. The public library had a section on woodworking which I frequented in the time that I was trying to absorb information on the craft from every source I could find. It was there that I found a book on box making, which inspired me to make my first three boxes. The first was a called a potpourri box, meant to hold random nicely scented objects. It featured a lid with a nice pattern on it, although I, unfortunately, made that out of plywood, which I thought was suitable at the time. I filled it with some poplar and walnut shavings from the first time I used a hand plane. The second is a pen box that is supposed to look like a solid piece of walnut, except when the lid is lifted it scoops a pen out of a trough hidden inside. It was a neat little mechanical design. The third was built with the purpose of trying dovetails for the first time. They were big and clunky and gappy, but since dovetails are the quintessential woodworking joint I was pleased to just get them to fit together. The three boxes sit on my dresser at home as a reminder of where I started.
The reason that I keep coming back to boxes time and time again is that they offer so much possibility. Depending on my ambition, I can spend just a few days up to a few weeks working on one, which offers a nice break from full-scale furniture projects that take might take me months. The design opportunities for boxes are limitless, and they don’t take up much space or material compared to the amount of woodworking skill is put into practice in the course of making one. The conscious reason for making a box is usually to test out a design idea I have or to make a gift for someone important to me, but the ever-present underlying benefit is that I get to practice my woodworking skills in a very engaging and productive way. Occasionally, I read an article in a magazine about the importance of taking the time with some scrap wood to practice such skills as sawing a plumb line or paring to a mark or planing a face flat. This is, of course, true, but it is also rather boring and feels like a waste of material. Boxes are so small and so packed with details that require those skills that the practice happens naturally in the course of making the box.
The effectiveness of boxes as a tool for practice and design is evident based on the progress I have made in the years since I made those first three boxes. I frequently decide to build a box just because a design idea pops into my head and I want to try it out. I have also made boxes as gifts, both as general “thank-yous” and with a specific purpose in mind. I plan to continue making boxes frequently in the future.
The pictures of boxes are in the order they were made, from late 2012 through January of 2017.
With college approaching, I decided to build a bedside table during my senior. I thought it might be useful for my dorm room (depending on the furniture that was provided) but even if it wasn’t I would still have a nice piece for future apartments. I spent a long time thinking through the design. At first, I was thinking of a fully enclosed cabinet. But that takes a lot of wood, which I didn’t have on hand. I moved toward a more simple design, with four legs, a single drawer, and a nice wide top.
Strangely, there is a gap in my memory between when I settled on a design and when I finished most of the construction. The process missing – wood selection, milling, cutting to size, joinery, glue-up – was all business as usual. I had done it enough times for it to become somewhat normal. I understood the process and what worked well with the tools I had. I was capable of making cuts quickly and efficiently, at a higher quality than in the past and with fewer critical mistakes. All of that was the reward of practice. For the first time, I anticipated that a piece I made would be seen by people outside of my family, so I was totally focused on quality.
My memory comes back in January of senior year. Another issue of Fine Woodworking Magazine came in the mail, and in it was included a “Master Class” article about inlaying a compass rose. The Master Class series features details on a very difficult technique that is often necessary for the construction of a piece featured elsewhere in the magazine. I had always devoured the information in that section but felt it was too out of reach for me and my amateur skill set. This time, though, I fell in love with the inlay and decided that I needed to try it out on the top of the table even though I knew it would be a challenge. I came up with a clever way of mitigating the risk, though. I cut a shallow recess in the corner of the top into which the inlay would go. That way, if I failed to do a good job with the inlay I could build a small box that would lock into the recess and become a permanent part of the top, covering the mistake at the same time.
I spent many hours on the inlay, starting with a meticulous layout and then with chopping out the tiny mortises. It was tedious work that left me hunched over my bench. My hard work was finally rewarded when I glued the pieces in place and cut them flush with the surrounding surface. It turned out quite well, so well that there was no need to make the camouflaging box. Maybe I still will someday, though: the recess is a little out of place, and I never planned for the inlay to be integral to the design of the table. I brought the table to school with me in the fall but found that all the furniture I needed was already in the room and there was no reason to squeeze in more. So, it went back home with my parents and remains in my room, waiting for a time when I will make use of it in my first apartment.
I learned a lot about woodworking by reading about it, but the only way I could really see how techniques are put to use was by watching woodworking shows on PBS. There were several that I watched frequently, my favorite being “Rough Cut: Woodworking with Tommy Mac.” Tommy, a Bostonian through and through, was quite fun to watch, and also a brilliant woodworker. On one show he made a wall cabinet, and I decided to build it myself without really having a use for it.
The project was not an easy one, but there really isn’t anything special about it. The reason I write about it is because of the peripheral projects I had to carry out in order to complete it. I built the cabinet out of cherry since I had a lot of it. I cut all the boards to size but then ran into a problem. I had to cut four sets of dovetail joints (one per corner) to form the cabinet, but I had no way to hold the work down while I made the cuts. I tried unsuccessfully for a while to hold the pieces to my bench with a literal tangle of bar clamps before reevaluating. After some research, I discovered that what I needed was a very old device called Moxon vise. I decided to build myself one of those, too. I glued up some boards to make the structure and jaw face and bought some nuts and threaded rod to make the screw mechanism. I spent hours with my drill gouging out gigantic holes for the rod and epoxying them in place. Then, without a lathe, I cut wheels by hand to allow me to operate the clamping mechanism. In the years since the vise has been one of my most important tools. I use it for every single project and often require it for most of the steps. The quality of my work has been greatly elevated just by building that one tool. With my new Moxon vise, I was able to securely clamp each side of the cabinet in place while I cut the dovetails.
Later in the project, when I started to work on the details, I was faced with having to create something called a dentil molding, which, as the name implies, looks similar to a row of teeth. The only way I knew of doing that at the time involved a crosscut sled on the table saw. Of course, I didn’t have one of those, so I went ahead and built one. Not only would it be useful for the dentil molding, but its typical primary use is to cut wood across the grain at a perfect right angle, and I knew I would find times when that capability would be useful. I used some scrap plywood and spent a lot of time fine-tuning the fence and guide runner to make a perfect angle and smooth glide. I went into the project without having thought through the whole process to be sure that I could complete it. It turns out that I couldn’t, but I was able to build the tools I needed to overcome the roadblocks, and they have served my work well ever since. Although the design is not my own (I did add a few details of my own) the cabinet turned out quite well, even though I still don’t know what to do with it.
From the time I was about four up until my sophomore year of high school, I slept in a generic bunk bed. It was a solid piece of furniture, although there was nothing special about it. The novelty of being able to switch from the top to the bottom whenever I wanted had worn off by the time high school started, and the bulk of the bed was annoying and unnecessary in my small room. I had acquired most of the important large woodworking power tools (table saw, bandsaw, radial arm saw, router table) from my grandfather at the end of freshman year, so early in my sophomore year, I decided to make real use of them for the first time by building myself a new bed.
I spent a lot of time on the internet at first, looking at pictures of wooden beds online. That research helped to inspire the design of my bed. First, I wanted it to be simple. Not only did my novice-level skills prevent me from taking on anything too complicated, from an aesthetic perspective I prefer visually simple pieces. Second, the mattresses of my bunk bed were recessed into the frame, meaning the mattress had to be lifted out to fit clean sheets onto it – not an easy task. I decided that my bed would leave the mattress level with the top of the frame and easily accessible. Third, I was outgrowing the mattresses on the bunk bed, one of which I planned to keep for the new bed. I didn’t want a new one, though, so I made sure to not include a footboard, allowing my feet to hang a little over the end unopposed. And finally, the bed needed one eye-catching detail, which I chose to be a thin bent-lamination for a headboard of sorts.
I had a significant supply of cherry, also courtesy of my grandfather, and I used a significant amount of the best wood to make the bed. I glued up boards in four layers to make gigantic square legs for each corner and used long wide boards as stretchers, the one with the best grain at the foot since it would be most visible. It was my first time doing real joinery (at least joinery that I would have to count on to keep me from crashing to the ground in my sleep), and I struggled with it. It’s not easy to fit a tenon into a mortise, and I spent a lot of time frustrated with myself for the slow pace and all the mistakes I made. Finally, though, the four sides came together just fine.
The bent lamination at the head is my favorite detail and was also the most challenging to make. To make it, I cut a long, square piece of wood into many thin strips and then glued them back together around a curved form. To make it even more difficult, I had to cut angled tenons to fit into the mortises in the head legs. Looking back at it, I am always a little surprised that I managed to do it. My success shows that patience goes a long way into making something difficult work out well, which I need to do better at remembering sometimes today.
The mattress rests on a sheet of plywood I cut to fit snugly into the frame, and it is the single most important lesson I learned about bed design. Having slept in a dorm room bed on springs, I now realize the importance of a box spring to making a bed really soft and comfortable. No matter, though. My bed is still the only one of my projects that I use every day (at least when I’m at home), and it’s still going strong. On the occasion when I’m asked to make my bed, I’m proud to be able to reply, “But I did make it!”, even though I’m being a bit of a smart-aleck!
I finished building the lighthouse at the end of eighth grade, and over the next year spent much of my free time reading about woodworking, watching how-to shows, and surfing instructional websites. I had big dreams about what I wanted to make, but no way to realize them. My tools were still limited to the jigsaw and drill and a few basic, low-quality hand tools. I read many a time that the router (think of a drill that can cut horizontally as well as vertically) is one of the most versatile woodworking tools, as it can be used to cut grooves, shape recesses, and form joinery. It can also be used to straighten out a cut when there is no access to a tool better suited to the job. That’s primarily why I wanted a router – it’s impossible to cut straight, clean lines with a jigsaw, which really limited me. I asked my granddad for advice about my purchase. He told me that everyone he knew who owned a router also did not have all ten fingers. His warning scared me briefly, but I was desperate to build something and I was confident in my respect for the tool, which is critical to staying safe.
So I bought myself the router and a cheap set of bits, and my parents banished me to the garage from my normal spot in the furnace room due to the dust and noise it created. I got to work on a project right away: a Shaker-style stool I saw in Fine Woodworking Magazine. It was a simple design, published in the magazine as an exercise in building furniture entirely by hand. Lacking the skill, though, and wanting to try out my router, I made it by machine. I chose a piece of pine with beautiful color and straight grain for the top and legs and used thick chunks of walnut for the corner braces. I distinctly remember clamping a piece of plywood to two sawhorses in the garage to make a work surface for cutting the grooves and through-mortises in the top. The feeling was immensely satisfying, not only because of power I could feel in my hands as I cut wood with ease, but because I had purchased the tool with money I had earned by mowing lawns. It was the first tool to be indisputably mine. Over the course of a few weeks, I carried the stool to completion. I was disappointed somewhat in the fit and finish. I couldn’t get the through mortises quite flush with the top, and the top itself was a bit pockmarked from my first experience with a hand plane. Still, the primary feeling I had upon finishing it was pride. It held my weight, after all. For the first time I had built something truly useful with my own tools, and it was a copy of a piece worthy of being published in Fine Woodworking! Plus, it was good practice for future projects and gave me a confidence boost to carry them out.
I’ve decided that with the first half of my passion blog this semester I will describe the pieces I have built that have been most important to my development as a woodworker, and with the second take a look at what I want to build in the future and the skills I will need to be successful.
Woodworking has always been a part of my life in some way. Both my grandfathers were woodworkers, so I would see their shops on family visits, and pieces they built littered my house. Every year we would take a trip to the beach, staying at my grandparent’s beach house on the very northern tip of Long Beach Island in New Jersey. The house was the closest on the island to the famed red-and-white Barnegat Lighthouse, which I loved to look at and, especially, climb.
For some reason I got the idea in my head of building a model of the lighthouse, complete with a light at the top, to keep at home. I followed through with my idea, creating an internal frame of popsicle sticks I cut with wire snips and building an outer shell out of balsa wood from the hobby shop. I bought a nightlight bulb and put it in the top. I was more disappointed in the model than proud. It looked terrible, even for someone who had never really built anything before.
My failure motivated me to take up what I consider to be my first real woodworking project. I wanted to build an accurate scale model of the lighthouse, complete with as many details as possible. I took up the idea the summer before 8th grade and decided on a scale of 1:65. During our summer visit to the beach that year I made many trips to the lighthouse to measure various features and was helped by a friendly park ranger.
At the time I was very limited in tools and materials. I had a handheld drill, a jigsaw, and two sheets of plywood to work with. My strategy: stack about 40 disks of plywood, the edges cut at a very slight angle and with successively smaller diameters, to form the tapered tower. I created the little details at the top out of toothpicks and balsa wood and model clay.
At the time, I didn’t realize just how difficult it would be to cut circles with a jigsaw, especially ones that had to be cut in one direction due to the angle and varied so little in diameter.
I spent months making those cuts, and the level of difficulty is evident in the finished project, which despite a lot of sanding still shows many ridges and inconsistencies.
I designed the lighthouse to be lit, and I wanted it to reside outside the house (although I eventually decided against that), so I designed wire ducts and water drainage into the tower. I created my own little switch box to control the LED at the top and the ones meant to shine up from the base. Later, I bought a microcontroller kit made to create a realistic lighthouse flash, and even later after that designed and coded my own controller. The lighthouse was not only my first woodworking project; it was my first introduction to electronics and coding, both of which I am still very interested in today.
Despite the little failures and mistakes I see today when I look at my lighthouse, I am always a bit surprised at how well it turned out. The year I spent working on it taught me how to work with what tools I had and improvise. My dedication and the achievement of my goals gave me the confidence to learn more about woodworking and try even more challenging projects.