Hand Tools

Spending time with the hand tool crowd this past weekend brings to mind some ideas about utility. And why not? The right tool for the job depends on many factors like skill, economy, and cost. Not just the quiet of the shop alone gets weight in this decision. How many times does a jig get made on the saw and drill press in order to work later on by hand?

These choices we make to use hand tools or powered ones are driven by our need to build work.  Sometimes building the product wins at my bench; sometimes enjoying the process is more important. And sometimes both win and that’s when I am usually the happiest.

But the best advice is to use the best tool for the job at hand. Have many tools at your disposable and choose the right one for the job, the day, or the deadline.

 

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Tools Have Magic

I think I can safely say that the hook for most woodworkers was tools. Most of us found a tool, or remembered our dad’s tools, or saw some tools at somebody’s shop and then they thought to themselves, I wonder what these things do? I wonder what I could do with these tools?

I found an old hand plane outside the college house I was living in, way back when. I didn’t know what it did, but I knew it did something, and I wanted to know more. Still have it. It’s a wooden bodied transitional plane that has never ever worked because it’s still a bit rusty and the body is cracked but it’s okay. It does not matter to me because it was never a tool that I needed to see work. It was a symbol then, and still is today, of what I might be able to do, what I might be able to learn, what I might be able to accomplish. I keep it right by my bench. It is a reminder of where I came from. From that deep pit of tool ignorance that I dwelt in for the first 25 years of my life.

But once I got bit by that curiosity, once I started to go to the Sears store, which was the only place in town where I could find woodworking tools, and stare at that wall of tools that they used to have there, I knew that I wanted to know more. I wanted to figure out what I could make those tools do for me. It is a gift these tools are. They have magic in their grip. It is our job to figure out how to make that magic work for us.

Transition plane close

 

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Absolutely

I had a man write me once after an article showed me using galvanized pipe clamps. “No, no, no, no, no, no,” was what he wrote. Then he went on to describe what a knucklehead I was for using them and how many other wrong things I did in that article on gluing up.

I wrote him back.

I tore up that letter.

I wrote him back again. Again I tore up the letter.

Finally after a time, I put my thoughts down to him. Simply put, I said this: Please come to my shop and see what I do. My approach may not be right for you, but it works for me. Galvanized pipe clamps work for me. It is how I have figured out how to build. Try it, it might work for you. It works for me and that is all I can write about.

Please don’t speak in absolutes when it comes to woodworking, play calling, or beauty. What works for me may not work for you, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. No one knows your motivation, tooling, or history at the bench. We make decisions based on what we think is right. Sometimes those decisions are monumentally stupid. This I concede and have experience with. Sometimes they are just right for us, as is usually the case. And finally sometimes they might help another soul wandering along that same path of logic in search of an answer to a problem. Glad I could help. Absolutely.

 

1-clamping table

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Texture

Look around. Texture surrounds our senses. From the moment our hand touches a surface to the sounds we hear, the ground we walk on, and the food we taste, texture is a daily part of our lives.

Texture frustrates monotony. It is the rock in the stream, the bump in the road, the meter of a poem, or the knot in a rope. It is both good and evil. It promises interest; it presages pain. Texture is the drumbeat, the heartbeat, the tear of the concrete as you fall, the hand holds of a wall. It is the grip of the soles of my boots and the ravages of a pock marked face. It is surface and superficial. It is rock hard and substantial. Texture gives life to work and marks the desert’s sere floor. It knows no limits and defines them well. It relies mostly on contrast for us to notice it, but in a piece of wood or a bit of furniture it can engage our imagination.

Join us this Wednesday, Jan. 21 from 6-7:30pm for a DESIGN: Open House on Texture. This should be a fun discussion. John Hall with his take on Japanese architecture and garden design joins us.

1-Prague Door      1-GR Finger jointed Cabinet detail

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Carpe Diem

Carpe diem does not mean fish of the day. It means get out there and do something. It means that time is a’wastin’. It means get down to the shop and build something. Create something of value for yourself & for others. There is a beautiful quote by the Scotsman mountain climber, W.H. Murray. It goes like this:

“Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.

All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:

‘Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. ‘”

-W.H. Murray

 

Carved Box Bamboo and Sparrow

 

 

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Too Many Fumes

Ever have a problem with finishing? I’m probably alone in this. Or I’ve been sniffing too many fumes. Finishing is chemistry plus alchemy. Plus one more thing. This item is an attitude. An attitude that finishers have but furniture makers do not. Backing up. We never back up. We go forward. We have three forward gears plus one gear for hacking up a ball of spit when we screw something up, but forward always forward. There is no reverse in furniture making. Full or half or quarter or limping speed but forward, always forward.

Finishers on the other hand, if they don’t like a finish, if a color doesn’t work, they do something astonishing. They take it off! Moving backwards! Who knew? They remove a finish because it went on wrong. They strip a finish if the color reacts badly with the wood. They move backward and think nothing of it and no less of themselves. They can avoid this reverse gear usually because finishers also do something we furniture makers avoid. They practice. They do a sample board. They gauge their odds of whether something will succeed first and then move forward.

Not us. We never warm up before cutting into a board. We walk into the shop, look around satisfied at our kingdom and grab that precious stick of mahogany and put a cut exactly a 1/4″ too short into it.

Time for another four letter vocabulary practice session I’m afraid.

As the world turns back on its axis, let us try to learn from the finishers. Practice first, then move forward, with speed.

 

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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

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.

1-IMG_1167

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