Sandpaper is Evil

By conservative estimate, over my 40 years of woodworking I have sanded several hundred miles of wood. My sanding odometer broke one day and I never fixed it so this is just a guess. I figure that I sanded enough wood for a line that went off as far as the eye could see into the desert and then beyond that. I sanded all that wood to within an inch of its life and then just a wee bit more. To be certain.

I sanded the tops of tops and the bottom of tops. I sanded the insides of drawers and the insides of cabinets. Heck I sanded the back ends of drawer sides, corner blocks, and the undersides of feet placed on the floor. I sanded flutes and coves and shapes and flats and I sanded them so that they were perfect.

Why? Because that is what is required when you sand. Because sanding is the first step down the slippery slope to perfection. Because once you start sanding, you see more imperfections, more glaring slips of your hand, more infinitesimal tear-out, more scratches. Oh, look, there’s a little scratch, get that out. Oh feel that, it’s not as nice as this here, smooth that out. Oh get that first coat of oil on and watch the sanding swirls blossom like trout at feeding time on a fish farm. I have to sand those out now.

Hours go by.

Satisfaction wanes, as these hours go by.

In the very beginning, some time close to the Rock Age, I sanded everything with a palm sander. This gave me a greater ability to put in sanding swirl marks so that I could sand longer. I used up miles of garnet sand paper eating up those wood surfaces with my Rockwell palm sander. A few hours of that type of sanding and it left me with my edges more rounded than my work. That sander’s bearings liked to hum a little.

But sometime just before the time my prostate started to enlarge, I realized that time was not my friend. That sanding was not my friend. That sanding wasted my time and that my time and my prostate were valuable. So I quit it. I quit sanding. It saved my prostate. Oh no, that’s an exaggeration of course. But it did save me some time.

I quit sanding to pick up my hand planes and scrapers. I put down my sandpaper to let a sharp iron do the work. And if, or rather when, as I am still humbled by my work, when an error occurs, when some tear-out breaks the surface of my pristine cabinet, when I plane the sides of my drawers and that quarter sawn sycamore acts petulant, when I smooth the inside of a cabinet or box wall and it is not perfect I say to myself: that’s a good thing. There’s the hand of the maker right on the surface of the wood. No more of this perfect for me. If a scratch bothers me, I have a scraper or sharp plane to remove it. I sand still, of course. 400 grit. Done.1-Tea table GR


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The Shape of Things

How many ways are there to shape a leg? To follow a line down to solid earth or to take a sinuous climb up its curve. To have the grain follow the line with careful choice of material and to accentuate the flow. Or to give it the role of foundation, holder, rock.

You are the designer. Make your choices.


1-Ruby's Knees GR-001



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The Right Saw for the Job

Choose your tools wisely for the job. For a plumber, the sawz-all is king because demo can be fast and messy. Not so much for dovetailing. That requires a different touch.

I have many tools at hand. Which one I grab depends upon many factors. When I cut dovetails, how picky do I want to be? How do I want the joints to look? How much noise and dust can I stand that day? And for me most of all, how late is the project? I have many options to use from my Japanese dozuki to my Lie-Nielsen back saw to the router. I put away the sawz-all for dovetails.

All my tools are used by hand and with a watchful eye but the results will vary as will my sense of satisfaction. I have many router cut dovetail boxes around the Studio. They’re nice. They took a modicum of skill which I possess. I have a few hand cut dovetail pieces round my house. Those I look on with a different sense of pride. Not a better sense, different.

We do this work as much for ourselves as for the customer. Pick the right saw for the job.

Rip saw teeth

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Discontent is the key to success, not satisfaction. To do more than you did before is what creation is about. To do the job better than the last time, to create something more special, or to walk new ground. This is what comes from our seasons of discontent. If we say to ourselves, I have learned enough. I am now the master of my craft, you have lost touch with that spark that keeps us creating. Satisfaction doesn’t spur us to do more. It leads us only to the couch. Keep trying to do better than the last time and you will never run out of ideas.


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Work with your hands. As a result, work on yourself. Spend time alone with your thoughts away from the clamor. See what you can make of the time at the bench. I can think of no better elixir for the cacophony that makes up a day in the world today.


1-Cr bed square plug-001

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Benches can be practical or symbolic. They can hold us up at dinner or be our viewing spot for the entire game. They imply community and congeniality. Come sit next to me on the bench, is a friendly invite. Where is your head? Go sit on the bench, is my old coach talking to me.

This season we worked with the City of Albany’s Parks and Rec department and the amazing Mark Azevedo, botanist and sawyer,  to build furniture for a Benefit Auction.

This 1st Thursday from 5 to 8PM at the Studio we’ll have a Silent Auction to help raise money for white oak habitat restoration in the Albany area. Using white oak reclaimed from a site clear cut, the Mastery graduates built benches of this wood. No limits on the designs of any of the work. Just an opportunity for them to design and build with this marvelous wood.

Please join us along with our sponsor, Base Camp Brewing, at the Studio for this great event.

Check out this walnut bench by Sue Willette!

Bench Sue 003


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Simple is Complex

All projects need refinement, lightness, simplicity.

I tell my Mastery students often in a critique to lose 10% of their design. Sometimes 20%. Mass is not always required for strength. Careful engineering is required. Where can you remove material?

Adding lightness and simplicity is a difficult chore. How much work do you need to do to make something simple? How do you know what is unessential in a piece? Where do you stop?

Make copies. Make models, drawings. Try one thing and then another. Keep checking in with your gut to see how it feels. Keep practicing your paring skills. You will make mistakes. Try again.


1-AMS window









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Slow Furniture Movement

Why not a slow furniture movement?

An early aphorism I placed in our literature was a quote from John Ruskin: “When we build, let us think that we build forever.”

This is a sentiment I am fully in support of particularly these days when you see a “modern” building go up and 5 years later, they’re replacing the siding on it. There’s quality today for you.

But one of my Mastery students quoted Ruskin in a different way that I think is equally valid. Perhaps you’ll agree:

When we build, let us think that it takes forever.

Weekend projects do seem to take on a half life of their own. Some of mine are decades long now. Sigh. I keep plugging away at it.

1-China cabinet GR


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Dream all you like. Think about what it would be like to be skilled in a craft. But skill is gained only by work. Mastery comes after years of study, the rewards through discipline & sacrifice. Sigh.

Quality work does not come through an afternoon’s study. It is the work of a lifetime. And why not? What great skilled worker learned their craft in a weekend? What musician became masterful in a few hours of study?

It is this very process of learning your skill, of practicing your craft that is the goal. Never reachable, always worth striving for. Quality is not perfection. It is real, it is actual, and changeable as we learn more, as we discover more about our tools and about ourselves. Begin.

1-USFS Bass carving GR

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It is autumn, once our gathering time. For collecting ideas, it is always time. There is a designed world all around us. Ideas hanging from the rooftops and tree branches and scattered on the ground below our feet. A designed universe whether created by your particular deity or Ma nature or random atoms smashing together: the design of the world is astonishing.

The key to it is opening your eyes. Look for forms, find patterns, see the symmetry around us. In the flock of birds, the march of columns, or the burned trees in a forest. This is a gift of design for those of us lucky enough to be able to see. I took my interns out yesterday and said: Look around, buildings, the sky, leaves on the tree, a Porsche sitting next to a junker. Design is everywhere and the ideas for design all come from the same place inside. Learn to find it.
1-Tin man Praha


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