Comfort Zone

1-Halgrims Church Ice1-Hallgrim inside

I am in Iceland when I see this place. Iceland. Norsemen, volcanoes, Vikings, edge of the earth, moonscaped, treeless Iceland. Actually there were a few trees there in Reykjavik but some blew down in the hurricane winds we had when I visited. As someone there put it to me, We’re not here for the weather.

And yet, look at this place. Hallgrimskirkja. A cathedral whose design started in the 1930’s. It was finished in the mid-80’s. Record time for a cathedral I would think.

Look at what came up out of the earth. A place so right for its location on earth: rock and ice floes and basalt columns rising up to the sky, yet with Art Deco repetition and rhythm. Inside it’s a clear rise up into the arches. Stunning.

Design like this does not come from being safe. It comes from trying something a bit new, a bit different. Oh there are designs like this elsewhere and churches that look a bit like it too. But the idea to take this up into the sky like this required some Iceland nuts. Someone stepping out of their comfort zone.

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Chisels at the Bench

We are a type, we woodworkers. We are tool nuts, junkies. We love our tools.

Somebody asked me once how many sets of chisels I have. I said, Only two. I have my old Marples firmer chisels from 1/4″ to 3/4″ and then my bevel edge Lie-Nielsens. And oh yeah, I have a missed match set of Japanese paring and mortise chisels. And I forgot the 3 or 4 Stanley 750’s I have collected, and the old Stanley butt chisels I bought when I started out. Then there’s those 3 big mortising chisels. Ooh, and I bought another set of the Marples firmer chisels because, you know, they were cheap. Had to.

I have a few sets of chisels. My name is Gary and I have a problem. I love me my tools.

I will try to share the love next week in class in The Hand Tool Shop at the Studio. We will focus on hand tools and which to buy and how to sharpen them and tune them and build cool stuff with them. Join us for a week at the bench.

1-Cutting Tools #4 Chisels

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The weather

What can you do about it? This weather has its own way of being, it’s own way of acting. Asking it to change would be like asking you to stop being who you are. We respond the way we respond. We take on our challenges the way we take them on.

The best we can hope for I think is to understand our methods and prepare for them. Case in point. Anyone who has worked around me when I am at the bench knows that I am, shall we say, a loud woodworker. There is always some tool or piece of wood to talk to, cajol, or simply swear at. It is as if I think things will go better if I am loud.

So when something really does go off the tracks, I know that the best thing for me to do is to walk away from my bench. Give the problem time to shrink to its real size. I walk outside or even around the block if I need. Then when I return, the winds have calmed some, and I can see more clearly what needs to be done.


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What makes one design sing and another snore? Is it the form, the shape, the color, the details, or the finish?

I think it is all of the above. Done with an end in mind, design uses all these means to create a work that grabs us and makes us engage with it. Call them touch points or engagement points, these are the things that bring a viewer or a buyer closer in.

Consider the form of your work. It is the first thing that gets someone’s attention. Is the shape pleasing? Are the proportions of it right? What is your intention with the form of the piece? To be bold enough to gain attention? Or is it to be restrained and subtle?

How do you want your work to make someone feel? Understanding one’s own intent when designing makes you look at each part of the design so that each works toward your intention.

1-Lightning Bolt Table GR

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Expectations. We all have them when we walk into the shop. Ah yes, I have come to spend a pleasant relaxing day at the bench undisturbed, unperturbed.

Then you begin work.

Things can go wrong. Jigs don’t work, parts mis-align as the glue holds fast in the wrong spot, wood tears out, screw heads break off, and finishes blotch. Lest it be misunderstood that I am somehow above the fray here, that nothing ever goes wrong for me, that I am the calm sea in the eye of every storm at my bench, just ask my assistants over the years. Loud is a good way to describe my woodworking.

It comes down to what we think is going to happen and what actually happens. It comes down to practice and preparation. But mostly it comes to slowing down because you’re in a hurry. That’s the key. Expectations.


1-Cafe Chairs Lumber to Legacy



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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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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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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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