Finishing Makes the Difference

How do people engage with your furniture? They look at the form first of course. If they like the shape of a piece, then they approach it. They eye it to see the wood and the sheen of it. The very next thing they do is touch the piece. Everyone loves to put their hands on wood because it’s warm, it’s inviting. And if there’s a finish on the wood, then what folks will be touching is that finish. You have to pay attention first to how that finish looks and next how it feels in order to win over a client, a buyer, or an admirer.

The problem is that finishing is part chemistry and part alchemy. It is neither simple nor intuitive. Most furniture makers, when they finally complete their piece that was supposed to take a weekend but instead took three months, all they want to do is put a finish on it and walk away from it. But what they usually do is put on the wrong finish in the wrong way and don’t like how it looks or feels. So what they do next,instead of backing up, instead of admitting they goofed, they press on! Brave stalwarts, they put something else over the first bad stain or topcoat and now they have a bastard child by two discordant parents/ finishes. Do they admit defeat now? Start over? Never. They continue the charge and apply another finish over the first two until such time as they finally can say, Enough. It is enough and the finish sucks so I’m done with it.

Another triumph.

Join us Wednesday Feb. 29 from 5 to 8pm for a lecture entitled 3 Simple Finishes. Learn how to demystify all the information swirling about on finishes. You’ll hear about simple surface prep techniques, how to protect your work with finish and to make it beautiful. These are hand applied finishes that provide luster from low to high sheen, protection for your wood, and finishes that are easy to repair as well as beautiful. There is a ton of information to share with you so come and learn how to put on a great finish for your masterpiece.

Published in: on January 28, 2014 at 7:28 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Your Stupid Days

September 10, 2008

My apologies for ignoring the blogosphere. I’ve been working and soaking up September’s sunshine. The best time of the year in Oregon.

Let’s continue on about Safety.

Rule #2: Don’t stick your fingers into the blade.

I know that was Rule #1, but there are lots of ways of sticking your fingers into the blade. And the only way you’ll be safe is if you have a SawStop saw and that’s another story. I had a student one time, an orthopedic surgeon no less, and when I walked into the shop that first day of class, he very proudly showed me the compression bandage on his finger. “See, what a great bandage.” Well I had to ask why he was wearing a bandage, and he told me that he had had the table saw on and he was working on it and then he just stuck his finger into the blade. Go figure.

Please do not judge this man. Stuff like this happens all the time. Your brain disengages and you do something stupid. Please, do not think that you are smarter than this physician. This man who spent a good part of his adult life studying the science of healing. His education did him no good because he had a stupid moment. Stupidity plays no favorites here. Stupidity descends upon us all equally like the morning dew descends upon the flower and the cow pie.

Therefore I have developed rules for working in the shop.

1) Do not drink any alcohol and go to work in the shop. I have discovered that the best thing that beer helps me to do is to drink more beer. It is perfectly suited for that job and no other. Not a smart move on my part to drink beer and try to think. A stupid hat comes down on my head and in the midst of drinking beer, [this is how stupid you get], you think the stupid hat looks good on you. And even one beer can make you do stupid things. My worse accident ever in the shop happened after one beer.

2) Develop habits for your stupid days.

Everyone has stupid days. Days when your energy is low, your concentration is worse, or your mood is bad. Everyone has these days. These are days when you should not be anywhere near a moving saw blade. Yet there you are. Working close to several horsepower of spinning danger and you are brain dead. You know these days. You know, usually too far into them, that you are stupid that day. That everything you pick up falls out of your hands or you are constantly knocking things over, losing stuff, not paying attention.

On those days you shouldn’t even be in the shop but there you are anyway. You have to develop habits for these, your stupid days. Because on your smart days you can get away with anything in the shop. You could rip things on the table saw with your elbows holding the work and you’d be fine. But on your stupid days, oh my, on your stupid days, you shouldn’t even be driving a car. You should have stayed home and there you are muttering to yourself about traffic or cursing your luck in choosing a color blind spouse, or lamenting the Cubs blowing another lead [just wait, just wait, it’s ain’t over, till October] Instead of concentrating on the work at hand, you’re thinking about a hundred other things. But we don’t usually know which day is our smart day or our stupid day. Which day will be better. We press on regardless of all the warning signs.

Therefore you must have habits in place. Habits that will protect you on your stupid days.

Published in: on September 11, 2008 at 8:26 am  Comments (2)  
Tags: , ,

It’s Only a Windsor or (I Don’t Do This in My World)

May 9, 2008

Several years ago, I asked Brian Boggs about Windsor chairs. Brian was at the Studio teaching a class in Ladder Back chair making. He told me that if I wanted to go learn how to build a Windsor chair I should go study with his friend, Curtis Buchanan. Curtis lives in the oldest town in Tennessee and has a small 300 square foot shop behind his lovely house. He builds one chair a week using mostly hand tools and a lathe to turn his parts. He now also comes out to the Studio every two years to teach a class in Windsor Chair Making. He’ll be out this August again.

I want to tell you the story of me and Curtis during that week I spent learning with him. It will take a couple of entries but it’s worth staying with I think because it reveals so much about the variety of woodworking styles and techniques.

Curtis took me on as a student to build what is called a Sack Back Windsor. I just looked up what sack back refers to and the chair makers don’t know why it got that name either. Maybe it had something to do with a sack being put over the back of the chair to keep the sitter warm in winter. Who knows? But in any case it is one of several types of Windsor chairs including comb back, fan back, and continuous arm chairs.

Now Curtis agreed to take me on as a student for a week but he was about as happy to have a Fine Woodworking Contributing Editor over to his house as the Pope is to have visiting female Episcopalian Priests. He was polite yes, but enthusiastic to have me over? Not so much. Here was this router guy, this machine guy invading the quiet of his small shop behind his house. I’m sure he didn’t know what to expect from me. I was equally filled with trepidation. Did I know enough not to make a fool out of myself? The answer was no. Did I care enough? No again. I wanted to build one of these things to understand the appeal of them and to try something out of my comfort zone. It was woodworking but in a different dialect.

Building a Windsor chair is a giant step back in time and tradition. Welcome to the 18th century, leave your table saw at the door please. One of Curtis’ first questions to me was: “Do you have a draw knife?” “A what, no.” I replied. “Well you’re gonna need a draw knife to shape all your parts. Gotta have a draw knife. Well I got some extra.” Curtis said. Great, I said to myself. Good start, I felt real good, didn’t even have the tools. I had brought my spokeshave, I took my seat shaping hand plane and some other hand planes and chisels with me. But I had no draw knife. Curtis made a little mental note about that and me I’m sure and then we continued on. No draw knife, shoo.

Now these Windsor chair builders have rules and you cannot break the rules. That’s rule number one. Rule number two is oh don’t worry about the rules, it’s only a Windsor. It was this curious mix of strict tradition and a devil may care attitude that was so interesting about my week with Curtis. We started out with the design of the sack back which was inviolate. It had to have this certain seat shape, it had to have so many spindles, the arm stumps were so big, the legs this large, etc. I tweaked it here and there using a slightly different leg shape than most, but essentially it was a traditional Sack Back.

We split out the lumber for the chair outside the shop using a froe and a mallet type thing. Really it was just a beat up stump and it had had a tough lot in life. It beat on the metal froe and that was its job. It looked beaten. “Do you know how to use a froe?” Curtis asked. Again, I felt naked without my table saw in front of me. However did I get by I wondered to myself. Well Curtis was going to show me how to work his lever.

That’s what a froe is essentially: a big splitting lever. Splitting out green lumber is about as basic as you can get with lumber. Most of us don’t get this pleasure and total body work out because our lumber has been cut, graded, dried, stacked, painted with painted ends, and a board foot tally done on them somewhere. It’s not like that in the Windsor world, not like that at all back in Tennessee. You got yourself a tree about 5′ or 6′ long and you cut it up and took out what you needed. The beginning, oh the beginnings of woodworking. This was fun. I liked this. It was different but there was a very direct path in this work. Here was the tree, here is your basic tool: a lever, now go get your wood.

This work was over too soon as it was just plain fun. We headed back inside to meet my new friend for the week: the shave horse.

Published in: on May 9, 2008 at 8:56 am  Comments (3)  
Tags: , , , , ,

Small Victories

April 16, 2008

There is something about completion. Something about finishing a job and bringing it to a close. It feels good. There is satisfaction. I like this feeling. I’d like to feel it more. The problem is that I have chosen one of the more labor intensive crafts in which to work. Taking hours, days, weeks, months to finish a project is a bit hard on my need for gratification.

Now I am not in need of constant indulgence. I have no requirements for besting my latest Game boy score of the day. I don’t need to win at the races every day. But I would like to feel like I’m moving forward, like I’m pushing ahead, making progress.

This is why I am instituting a new plan for myself. I encourage you to do the same. I call it Small Victories. I call it this because I need this encouragement. I need to feel at the end of a day, when I am incredibly busy and nothing seems to get done, I need to feel that something is getting accomplished.
So I look into the future and say to myself, what would make me feel good about today? Not what do I want to get done today?

Because if I were to answer that question I would say, Well today, I’d like to finish building that cabinet from 17 years ago, I want to paint that door sign, fix the plumbing in the other bathroom, design more railing for the mezzanine space, get that flashing installed outside, practice carving, finish the dovetails on that drawer, organize my drawings, clean out the storage room, fix the planer, and get a work-out in. It can’t be done in one day.

But what I can do is pick one project and work on it like a madman for an hour, letting nothing interrupt me. Nothing will deter me. I will work, you can talk at me, I will not stop. I will work on this and all I hope for is one hour. If I get that hour in, I will be happy.

And you know what? I think I can usually do that. It’s a small victory. But it gets me down the road. And that’s where I want to be moving. Not doing the usual dance in my shop where I walk in, [place those cartoon dashes after my footsteps], go to my bench to start on the drawer but see the mess, start to clean it, walk to the plane cabinet to put something away, oh that’s not finished yet, flatten the back of that plane for a bit, dang water stones are dried out, get water for that, boy I should find those hinges, did I put them in here above the sharpening stuff, oh look I found that template guide I had been looking for, I should see if the other one is in the Hitachi router, when did these screws get knocked over, better fix that, clean as you go, that’s my motto, oh the beam still needs scraping, go sharpen that scraper, why is this bench so cluttered with drawer stuff, put that aside. STOP.

So all I’m hoping for today is an hour of focused work. Two or three would be nice. But progress will be made however small. I will take this small victory with me at the end of the day. And every time I waver I must bring myself back on task like those meditation kittens that keep leaving your lap when you’re trying to learn how to meditate but never can. Put it back on my lap for one hour and get some work done. Good. Now I can keep going but I hope, at least to get in one small victory today.

Published in: on April 16, 2008 at 8:15 am  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , ,


April 14, 2008

I am a teacher. I know some things about woodworking and I teach it to any and all interested students. It is what feels right for me. It feels good too. I take satisfaction from this job. It also has allowed me after 25 years of building furniture to keep my bench, keep my machines, keep the jigs and patterns, tools and wood, keep these things close at hand, ready at hand. I can continue to work, I can continue to build, when there’s time. It is a great joy. I feel lucky to have chosen a profession 34 years ago that is now esoteric enough to be slightly in demand.

It is an odd profession when considered in the light of today’s world. It is a profession in distinct opposition to the world’s view that the next new thing is the next best thing. It entails skills that have no demonstrable use to most people in the world today. You cannot text with woodworking tools, you cannot make a phone call with our machines, you cannot play games with our information. There is little money to be made in mastering the art of it.

But once upon a time, woodworking was not just valued; it was essential. Primal perhaps. But certainly essential for life on the farm where 90% of us lived. Then the world industrialized, we sped up our lives, we learned to grow super crops and no one put a stopper in population growth. So here we are.

And yet I find this woodworking stuff to be more than an historic trip. I find that it is something different from being an Abe Lincoln impersonator, however valuable you may find one to be. It is also more than helping to man the workbench at a historic re-enactment. It somehow taps into something more valuable in myself than can be fully explained. It is an unconscious result, it is certainly unplanned. But something happens at the bench that informs my life on many different levels. Partially it’s that I get to make things. Part of it is the pace. Some of it comes from having to know so many different things. And learning to think my way out of problems. It is also the result of being responsible for what happens at the bench. For not being able to blame anyone but myself for the results.

This responsibility is a golden burden. It gives my efforts meaning at the same time as it puts a load on my patience, my endurance, and my skills. This responsibility impacts my life in a very real way and yet it feels very much like a gift. A gift to be able to spend time at the bench. A gift to be able to build things.

Also a gift to be able to ruin a workpiece with an errant glue-up, or to be able to sand for 4 days straight. A gift to be spending 10 minutes of every hour in a day sharpening so that I can continue to pull off ribbons of wood in feathery shavings. A gift to drop a clamp because I went brain dead and tightened the upper clamp and let the lower drop ever so quickly down onto my cabinet. These are gifts. I must remind myself that these are gifts. But some days they are burdens as well.

It was for this reason that I started to write this piece. That as much as I extol the virtues of working at the bench, it does come with a price. And this price is what I feel guilty about. I feel guilty for what I must do to my students. I can’t tell them right off that it’s real hard work or that some days are pure drudgery. I can’t say right off that this stuff won’t come easy. Some days it will feel like pulling teeth to learn these skills. That on some days just getting through the work is the toughest part. It will be hard. It takes so long to build furniture. I feel bad about this.

I can’t tell them that they won’t make a bonehead mistake just after making a real bonehead mistake. This takes a toll on one’s self-image I have to tell you. It’s hard being that stupid some times. It’s hard. But I can’t tell them that right off. I have to let them learn for themselves. I have to let them discover this burden for themselves.

And so I apologize to you, my students. Woodworking is hard stuff. It is hard to learn to do well, it takes time to learn, it doesn’t come without sacrifice and for this I apologize for ever making it seem easy. It is not. I know it is not. It is a life’s work but it’s good work.

The story goes that when the master was asked how long it took to make that carving or draw the sketch, the answer was 20 minutes and 20 years. And so it does take that long. It takes time. But one day you will look up from your bench and say to yourself, hmm, I do know some stuff. It just took awhile to get here. Try to enjoy yourself along the way. It’s a gift.

Published in: on April 14, 2008 at 12:47 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , , ,

Learning from our Mistakes

I was teaching a class once for the Triangle Woodworkers Association in North Carolina. This was early in my traveling/ teaching career and I had made a simple mistake. I was living as I do now in Oregon, on the West Coast, and I had not started to practice for East Coast time. On the day of my flight, I got up at my normal time and traveled. I flew out from the West and got out to North Carolina later that evening. No problems yet.

The next day I started my workshop at a reasonable 8AM start time. But it was 5AM my time and I was a wreck at first. Eventually the caffeine kicked in, the guys in the front row kept me awake with comments, and all seemed well. I did okay I thought. I felt reasonably lucid and coherent and everyone there seemed to think the same or else the people in North Carolina are always extremely nice. The assembled were all very polite throughout the morning and lunch hour as I lectured and demonstrated.

I felt coherent until the afternoon. It was around 3pm when my brain started to fade. I was routing some grooves in a mitered box so I could insert some keys. I had made a cut and turned the box, and made a cut and turned the box, and made a cut and turned the box the wrong way and before everyone assembled I made the wrong cut. Everyone saw it, everyone sat in silence as the guest of honor made the cut in the wrong direction on the box. I called a time-out right then and took a break.

The people there were so sympathetic to me. They came up and said, “Boy I saw you were gonna do that, but I didn’t know why.” or “You know I’ve done the same thing in my shop.” Or “Man, when you screwed up, I thought I was looking at me.” All sorts of lovely and kind comments, no doubt meant to make me feel good.

But what ended up happening was that everyone felt relieved. Instead of seeing something go together perfectly each time or hearing how it took the craftsman 20 years to learn how to do that right, here was somebody, who just like you and your buddy and everyone else, knew how to screw up. The chagrined look on my face was the tip-off that this was no set-up. It was real. It was a mistake. We had a laugh about it and then moved on. What else can you do?

The thing I learned that day, besides getting to the East Coast one day earlier to acclimate, was that the mistake meant more to these folks than anything. It made everyone there feel less alone, less like they were the only ones who screwed up. Everyone makes these bonehead moves it turns out. The real difference between the amateur and the professional is that the professional is so used to making mistakes that he recovers more quickly. It happens, walk outside, shake your fist at the sky, forgive yourself, get over it, move on and get back to work.

Now I haven’t made that same mistake ever again. I learned from it and that’s the point. We learn from our mistakes, and then get back to work.

Published in: on April 9, 2008 at 8:41 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , ,


Magnetism in the shop comes in several forms, as I will relate. Hear me out and see if your experiences do not match my own.

Wood is not supposed to be magnetic. Wood is of course organic, lovely, warm to the touch, capable of fiery beauty and unimaginable pattern. It is remarkably alive even when cut and slabbed into table tops. It continues to warm us with its beauty long after it has been felled, cut, dried, stacked, sanded, and finished. It is as natural to us as water or air. Familiar, comforting, dependable, resilient. So many words have I to describe wood. So why must I also use the word magnetic?

Magnetic. Or so it seems, for it can be the only explanation for its willingness to impale me at every turn. Why am I magnetic to wood or is it versa vice? It’s constant. I run my hand across a table top, bang, I am nailed with a splinter. I set my garden rake down, worn smooth by years of work and weather, let it slide out of my grip and bang, I am nailed with a splinter. I walk down my steps in the morning to eat a sleepy eyed cup of coffee and drink my breakfast cereal and bang, I am nailed with a splinter on the 50 year old hand rail! This is no way to awaken and I am tired of this attraction. Why must it be so?

Am I truly magnetic to wood I wonder? Is it a kind of attraction that makes wood peel off in needle-like sections, like the tools of a torturer to impale itself gleefully into my skin? I scream in anguish with each new barb wondering again what part of this is pay back for my life’s work or is it just plain stupidity? Because I see a wood surface and I want to run my hand over it. Experience be damned, I want to run my hand over it because I love the feel of wood and bang, well, you know the rest.

Now I have known for years of another kind of magnetism in the shop. I have known that concrete has a magnetic attraction to tool steel. You’ve seen this yourself no doubt. It’s a known fact. You work on a concrete floor and you’ll begin to see that your tools seem to have this fatal need to plunge to a cement death. This kind of magnetism must have some kind of explanation in a physics text. The requirement of sharpened tool steel or precisely milled measuring tools to leap like lemmings to their death onto the floor. What other explanation do you have? It’s not like you’re trying to push your tools off the bench. It’s not like you want to see them exhibit this sort of behavior. It’s embarrassing really to have them act this way. They should know better and yet they just can’t help themselves. It’s magnetism. It’s the only explanation I have.

Of course I have become adept at catching some tools with an outstretched foot. Note, I said some tools, not all. Some you just have to watch like Wiley Coyote all the way down to their demise. Hmm, hmm. Acme Tool Steel once again leaping to its death. And there’s nothing to be done. You can’t save it. You just have to watch.

At least with one of those magnetic wooden splinters I can pull out my loupe, set up the light, get out the tweezers and heat-blackened needle, and then start to dig like a miner for the minuscule yet potent little bit of nasty wood. It’s become second nature to me by now. Oh look, a piece of wood, let me run my hand on it, bang.

Published in: on March 24, 2008 at 10:22 am  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , , , , ,

Warning the Innocents

The importance, the perils, the sheer panic inducing anxieties of a simple glue up cannot be understood by innocent bystanders. An innocent will walk into your shop at the moment of your gluing and think, how wonderful, how serene. Oh, to be a woodworker and calmly enjoying the fruits of one’s labors. They wave a jaunty hello as they step in. Then they look at your face. They receive the terse hello if not a more shortened grunt of recognition, they see the tight lines drawn around your mouth, the beady eyes of concentration, the quick movements. What have they walked into they wonder?

Well it is a test they’ve stepped into. A trial by fire and polyvinyl acetate. An activity that can reduce a calm and normal person to a bug eyed monster screaming at inanimate objects and loved ones alike. They’ve wandered into the shop of some kind of madman off his medication and stung by a hundred wasps all at once.

You know this, those of you who have felt the tightening grip of a glue-up. You who have been tested by an adhesive drying before your very eyes. It’s no trivial matter. If you’re the one driving the ship that day, you alone will live with the consequence of not turning the wheel soon enough, not cutting the motor before plowing into the dock. Watching your weeks of work turn into a shattered puzzle that needs extracting from a pool of quickening adhesive.

Gluing up is a time in the shop that is a culmination, it is a celebration really of all that you’ve done, all the hours of effort, the days of patience, the weeks of preparation to get your parts to this spot. These pieces are ready, gleaming, sanded to within an inch of their lives, carved and polished, shaped and faired, poked and mortised with an Egyptian sense of perfection. Not a gap to be seen in any joint. Perfect. You are ready to glue. It has finally come to this.

But this is where sometimes you lose sight of your goal. Your goal is completion, ease, a sense of sliding right into that dock perfectly with just a slight bump as you settle into place. But you sense it too keenly, you smell it too well and perhaps this is the problem. It’s right there, you can almost see it from here, your goal seems so blue and serene or it’s lying in a green meadow with the sounds of tiny clouds whisking by or there’s a brook babbling somewhere in the background or maybe the whole scene is just floating in beer. Whatever your goal looks like, it’s so close. It’s right in front of you. You can almost taste it and it’s at this time that some people just grab the glue bottle and begin, happy, calm.

Well, it’s a sad day sometimes is glue-up day. It’s a sad day when you rush to that glue bottle, when you say I can do this, I’m ready, and no, no you’re not. You’re not ready. You’re not ready to begin, you haven’t filled the bottle with all the glue you’ll need. And when the time comes and you need more, the glue sits at the bottom of the bottle and will take an impossibly slow time to reach the spout. It’s as if Gravity has taken on more of an attitude today. “Yeah, I’ll have the glue flow when I’m good and ready,” Gravity cheekily says to you. “No worries, chaka man, no worries, what’s the hurry,” Gravity yawns. Meanwhile your hair is turning grey as your fingers are turning white.

You need a clamp and you can’t remember if your neighbor returned those clamps he borrowed, ach I’m getting glue all over my table saw or criminy why don’t these rails go in like before, where’s my hammer? Or didn’t they line up before and now I can’t move them and your hammer blows leave only dents and torn fibers. It’s no longer a glad day with the end in sight, the end is slowly being torn up and shattered like you’re plowing into that dock. You’re still on that boat and you just want to get off.

Gluing up is one of those false promise things really, like push-up bras and socks in the pants. It’s a promise of delight and ease that just won’t deliver. You’d think the glue would make things slide easier. But it only acts as a wonderful lubricant for about 5 seconds, then it starts to work. Fear not. We have all been there. You’re not alone and you’ll live through it again. Just try, next time, to plan a bit before beginning your work. Find all your clamps first and clamp pads and extra clamps. Practice the sequence, figure out your steps before beginning, before squeezing out that glue. The job can be done with a little less quickening of the pulse. You just need to plan a little better, learn to think ahead a bit more. Just always warn the innocents before they enter on glue up day.

Published in: on March 19, 2008 at 9:03 am  Comments (5)  
Tags: , ,

I Remember when I First Started or Standards of Craftsmanship

When I first started woodworking, I was so completely in the dark about it. How to build things, how to design the stuff you were supposed to build, which tools to use. Which tools to even buy!

I used to go to the Sears store in town to stare at the wall of tools trying to decipher their meaning. What does a scribe do? It has nothing to do with scrivening, of this I was fairly certain. And what is a backsaw? Sawing which back? Or a butt chisel? How dare you sir. Odd terms. Particularly for a student of Russian literature as I was. I understood angst, I understood concepts of sin and redemption and nothingness and being.

All these tools were so much Greek. And the fact that the actual world which was filled with tools and things and reality, well this was sort of a difficult thing to comprehend. I really thought that most stuff just came out of a factory. I mean when you think of it from a completely uninformed position like my own why not have the telephone pole and the wires and the connectors and oh yeah the electrical current or currency whatever it was, all come from the same factory. It would be a telephonic factory. And they would deliver and voila, you would have a telephone and telephone line connected to your telephone pole and at the other end very much like a can and a string would be whoever you wanted to talk with.

Getting a glimmer of this world that actually was made up of stuff that was made up somewhere else was a revelation. It meant a great deal to me on many levels. Because on a purely spiritual existential plane it was all bunk anyway but if you hit your thumb with a hammer, it hurt. If a tree falls on you in the forest, somebody, if only yourself, hears it fall. And again it hurts. [regrettably I speak from personal experience in this tree falling matter. Another story.]

Understanding that the world was made up of stuff that you could be a part of making was the kind of thing that makes you smile very slowly at first and then you realize that you have just, for example, discovered how to make hot chocolate or Scotch. What a trip!

I was self-taught in all this or more accurately self-led. Therefore I think I was a bit self-delusional. I was woefully lacking in knowledge with no mentor to guide me or even steer me wrong. I was rudderless and adrift on my own sea. Go… that way.

As a result I had to develop my own standards of craftsmanship. They were crude.

My one rule, my only rule at the time for everything that I built, my rule of craftsmanship as it were, was that anything that I built I had to be able to stand on. If I could get up on it, then it was good. Resist collapsing underneath me o work of mine and you were considered good. A goodly effort. Jump up and down on it. Ah, that’s good work. [So much for my understanding of wood compression along the end grain.]

My standards have changed some throughout my 34 years of working wood. I don’t climb up on top of pieces so much any longer. Perhaps it’s the old knees or maybe it’s that I have a new yardstick for measuring success. But my standards are decidedly different.

There are times in the shop when my years help me see things clearly, effortlessly. And I wonder why I didn’t see things that way from the beginning. I remember being stumped by techniques that appear so simple now. It of course takes that many years to start to see things this way. It’s no accident. It’s not a mistake. It is just that it takes years of countless mistakes, years of hitting your thumb with a hammer to finally teach yourself.

I know that my students can often find, what are now to me simple concepts, quite difficult. I remember those days when they were difficult too. I remember not being able to figure things out. I can only say that it will change. Practice hard, give it time. It will change. And what a world, with hot chocolate and Scotch in it now.

Published in: on March 1, 2008 at 2:32 am  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , , ,

Put out the Fire First

It seems a simple concept really. But what appears easy to me or to you is sometimes not so easy for someone else to comprehend. This is what makes the teaching experience so endlessly rich with the variety and array of personalities.

In a class one time, the students were making mortising templates from 1/4″ Masonite. For some reason I had found the most tempered of tempered Masonite to use. This material was so hard it made the router bit scream as it cut through the board. This was hard stuff, hard hard stuff. We would cut slots in these templates on the router table with a straight bit, and most of my students had negotiated this noisy cut with no problems. Except for this one fellow. This particular student was making his groove cut through his Masonite template as the others had done, but he was moving at too slow a pace regrettably. Perhaps he was a bit too careful, a trifle more circumspect than others, more concerned with the perfect result.

Well moving slowly in a router cut can produce an array of effects. One effect is that you can burn the bit. The sawdust gets fried and coats the bit in a black gunk that sticks remarkably well to carbide. It makes it very difficult to cut. [There is an easy fix. Just take some oven cleaner and coat your bit with it for 20 minutes or so. Then clean the bit with a tooth brush. Repeat as needed until the bit is clean. This works on saw blades too.]

Another result of moving too slowly is that you can burn the wood. Particularly on end grain, you’ll find that if your feed rate is too slow, you’ll get burning. Slowing down the cut to admire your work gives you toasted wood in just seconds.

But another quite unexpected result from moving so slowly, with a burned bit, in a material so hard, with dust so fine, is that voila! the dust will be set on fire. Now when this happens, do not, as my student at the time did, just blow on the fire trying to put it out while continuing to make the cut. Put out the fire first.

There he stood at the router table blowing on the smoldering dust and probably making the flames grow higher while continuing to make his groove cut. But just as a general rule, for all of you who tend to set your work on fire as you make cuts in it, put out the fire first, and then you may continue cutting.

This may seem obvious to you and me. This may seem like good and sensible Standard Operating Procedure, an easy lesson. But not everyone gets this lesson at first. So be careful. Make certain that you understand this. Slow down here in order to speed up. It’s a good lesson for us all.

Published in: on February 26, 2008 at 1:21 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,