Sunday, March 28, 2010

Photos from Mexican Woodworking Shop

In January we went to Mexico and had the good fortune to visit a town not touched much by tourism. Our host took us to a woodworking shop where his chairs and tables were made.  The shop was not running, but we did get a chance to see the work areas. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves:

Perhaps the most striking fact to me is that the table saws (there were two of them) were obviously shop made and neither had anything like a fence in evidence. Notice the chair in the last picture: this is one of the primary products and I find it hard to believe that they do all that ripping without a fence. Looking at the table saw tables I notice there is a lip on either end that could easily be used as a clamping surface: in production I'll bet they have a piece of wood clamped there as a rip fence.

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Wooden Doll - First Independent Woodworking Project

So today the seed I hoped to plant with a hand-made tool tote and a few woodworking tools  began to sprout. My youngest came to me and said "We should start my first woodworking project." So I asked what she wanted to make: she had in mind building a playhouse for her dolls, which seemed a bit big for a first project. I suggested something else, like a toy horse. And she immediately hit upon making a doll.

I asked if she could draw what she had in mind. She sketched out a simple doll shape:

This seemed the perfect time to talk about wood rings and how that grain can create weakness. I drew a picture of the wood grain and how having it cross the arms could cause it to break under stress:

The lower of the two doll sketches that I drew was to show how dowels for the arms and legs could prevent this weakness. She agreed that would be a good solution and we headed into the basement.

She marked out the size of the body on a piece of poplar and then sawed the body out of the board. She did very well tracking the saw using the two hand method. One side was a little uneven and she asked me to smooth the sides (which I did with a hand plane).

I had purchased a used Workmate thinking it would be the right size for her to work on. It turned out to be true, though the condition of the top made some of the clamping operations difficult. She sawed and drilled on the Workmate, and I taught her to use the vice top.


 We agreed it would be hard to drill into the corners at the bottom for the legs to go in. She proposed cutting flat spots there. She marked them off and I had her use the saw I use for dovetails to make these smaller cuts. Then she drilled the holes.

This was slow going, and I did take a few "turns" in each hole to make it deeper. But she started the holes and at least half of the drilling. She was pretty proud of the work she was doing.

She wanted to round the body and I let her work on that with a four-in-hand rasp / file followed by sandpaper. While she was doing that I made a simple jig with a deep v cut to hold the dowels and a cut with the dovetail saw to guider her cuts. With this jig she was able to mark the lengths and cut them herself. This is how she left it at the end of the day:

I'm pretty  pleased that she did all this without tiring of it. And she is happy to have made something in the wood shop. For the head, I'm going to look at a craft shop for a small wooden knob that will serve as the head. If I'm successful, we'll glue it all together later this week. She plans to paint it white and make clothes for it.

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Friday, March 5, 2010

A Happy Birthday Tool Tote (with tools!)

Today she turned seven, and she got a Dad-made tool tote with tools to go in it. She could not believe her good fortune at getting a genuine hand plane (a Stanley block plane No. 220) and a folding extension rule (the kind that has about 15 joints and extends for about three yards).

Success! I took some pictures along the way and hope to post a note about the tote construction tomorrow.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sam Maloof Leaves an Empty Chair

Sam Maloof passed away last Thursday. He was one of my woodworking heroes: someone that left corporate America to build enduring and beautiful furniture and succeeded wildly. I know he was tremendously lucky as well as talented, but his story still inspires.

If you must be dead to be a legend, a woodworking legend was born Thursday. Thank you, Sam. (Hat tip to Brian) of23-2009may23,0,3907018.story

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Journal Entry #8: Paint

I painted the corner behind the wood rack tonight. It is ready to receive wood tomorrow night.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Journal Entry #7: Do the Washing Up

Brian Eno, a musician and artist, has published several editions of Oblique Strategies, a set of cards designed to help break unproductive thought patterns. I've handwritten a set for myself and have been using it as a constant inspiration in life—there are so many things that I get bogged down with—and while the strategies were written for artists and musicians they are broad enough to apply to almost any endeavor.

One of these cards says "Do the washing up".

Mess discourages, distracts, and hinders progress on any project. If I can't get motivated, or if I feel overwhelmed in the shop, it almost always helps to take a break and clean everything up. Throw out the thin scrap strips from ripping down boards in the last project (why am I keeping them?), put all the tools back where they belong, file the hardware in the hardware box, and vacuum. Figure out where the pile of lumber should be (what, not the middle of the floor?), and paint the walls white to brighten things up.

And that's what I've been doing this weekend. I completed the woodrack, which will soon house the pile of project wood and open a bunch of basement floor space. The wall next to it is washed and ready for paint. And the workbench has been cleared completely: I'm ready for the next project.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Journal Entry #6: Bookshelves and Magnets

Last weekend I took down the first bookshelf I built, cut the shelves 3 inches shorter, reassembled it, and set it up on the other side of the room. I also took a smaller bookshelf that used to be in the new spot, cut an access hole in the back of it (for an electrical socket) and moved that shelf into a new place in the living room.

The cause of all this reorganization? We're getting a wood stove and bake oven installed in the dining room, and had to make room for clearance. I'm sure to dispose of a few cutoffs there in the coming years—a big improvement over throwing them all away.

Work's been busy lately, so I've spent only a short time in the shop. When the magnet holder of a new Min Max Thermometer broke on my shin (don't ask) it gave me the excuse I needed to get back into the shop.

Rather than trying to glue together the flimsy plastic magnet holder I broke, I made one out of wood. I sawed a small block out of a 2 x 4 cutoff, drilled a hole in the end to fit the magnet, drilled a smaller hole cross grain to hold the tether, and then on a whim did some shaping with a coping saw, a four-in-hand rasp, a chisel, and some sandpaper. The result is an oddly satisfying and quirky looking replacement that I actually like better than the one that came with the thermometer:

On slate for tomorrow: a wood rack for the basement and possibly a start on the cold frames I've been planning.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Journal Entry #4: Oil and Chock

Sunday I did a little bit of cleaning in the shop. A very little. But I did clear off the top of the file cabinet I've been meaning to fix and then took it apart to fix it. I thought it would need rivets, or some kind of clever metal work, but sometimes "fixing" turns out to be a spritz of oil and a wooden chock.

That's all it took: the top drawer's thumb lever had broken off leaving a latch that didn't unlatch without applying serious force. I cut a small wooden chock from one my "cut to a line" practice peices, wedged the latch open with it, and hit each of the rollers with WD-40. The bottom drawer, which seemed permanently wedged open turned out to be off its track. After oiling the thumb lever, latch, and rollers with WD-40 and putting it properly on track it was good as new.

Now—if I can figure out where it belongs—I can get it out of the shop.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Journal Entry #3: Small Victories

At the beginning of January I bought a Delta extended-bed 6" jointer from Rockler and started setting it up. The body of the jointer (175 pounds of metal) is mounted on the stand, as is the motor, but there were adventures setting it up (I might post these with pictures at some later date).

The short story: I dropped the motor on the floor while trying to mount it (if you assemble one yourself, don't believe the picture in the manual that shows the stand upright next to the mounting instructions: it should be turned upside down before attempting to mount the motor). Of course there was a big dent in the casing and I felt I needed to turn on the motor to make sure it still worked. I didn't notice there was a key in the shaft (the key prevents the pully from sliding on the shaft) and the key went flying. Lucky me, it did not hit me, but neither can I find it. So today I tracked it down at the Dewalt/Delta service Web site and ordered a replacement. It should get here around February 5.

Also, two of the wooden toy boxes we brought with us to Belize were broken by baggage handling. I glued these back together today, and they are ready for our next trip (either to see my grandmother in Nebraska, or my parents in Minnesota—or possibly in Mexico if it is affordable).

Finally The work on the Christmas present I gave SWMBO (in the form of raw material) proceeded slightly today. I find it hard to joint the face of a board by hand, and this shelf is being more stubborn than the other pieces. Once I get this last shelf flattened, I can use the power planer to flatten the other side parallel to the surface. Can't wait, since I expect things will proceed more quickly after the stock preparation is completed.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Journal Entry #2: Carving on the Beach

There was also a wood carving establishment on the beach in San Pedro: a board set across two saw horses just under a tree. The place was frequented by a number of dread-locked men, the foremost of which seemed to be Augustus (?) Ford. Ford, as he called himself, could be seen here, always working on something, with his wares spread out on the board and on a blanket in front of it. These included standards in Belize: shark, stingray, turtle, mermaid, and cross. Most were made out of a dark tropical wood that had an almost white sapwood running through it - a striking feature of the carvings.

I don't know if Ford made all of his wares, as he claimed. I tend to think the carvings were bought unfinished from the mainland and finished by Ford and his friends. But when I asked about how he worked, he gave me a tour of his workshop (a Rubbermaid bin that he was using as a work surface). Here's what he had:
1 machete
2 half-round wood rasps in 2 sizes
1 v-gouge (with a handle designed to rest in the palm)
1 small mallet that he had obviously made for himself
1 hack saw (for cutting up old machetes)
1 detail carving knife (made of the tip of an old machete)
1 gouge or round-tipped chisel (made of the tang of an old machete)
1 triangle file
1 medium sized piece of glass
lots of sand paper, all grades
That was pretty much it. He demonstrated the use of glass as a scraper, using the triangle file to cut the edge of the glass, then using it to snap a fresh glass edge. That edge was then used to scrape a shaving from the wood. Ford said this let him skip several grades of sand paper when finishing. The finishing started with a sanding sealer that smelled strongly of turpentine (even with the sea breeze going). The process as he described it was to seal the wood, sand carefully with the coarsest grit, seal again, and sand with the next finest grit, working his way down to a very fine tooth. At the end he used a bit of 000 steel wool and polished the piece with neutral shoe polish (the equivalent of a Butchers wax).

My brother's family brought home three of these sculptures, sold to them by a guy riding down the beach: a mobile outpost, I think, of Ford's operation. One of these statues has already cracked several times from the water loss (coming from warm and moist Belize to cold and dry Massachusetts). We're hoping the other two fare better.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Journal Entry #1: Woodworking in Belize

Over the coming year I plan to include journal entries amongst the other content on this site. I expect these will be more personal and less visual than other posts. Here's the first of what may be almost daily entries.

I just returned from a vacation/wedding in Belize and was interested to see woodworking done in a developing country. I saw numerous commercial woodworking shops and recognized them not by a sign (there was none) but by the sound of power tools and the sight of lumber yards. I wished to get into one and talk with the proprietor, but did not get the chance.

Our hotel was next to a shop that had quite a stock of what looked to be 8/4 and 12/4 rough lumber and a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. The wood was obviously air drying, not stacked and stickered as we commonly see in the States, but leaning against racks made of lashed together trees. These racks positioned the wood to catch the prevailing winds across the majority of their surface. I planned to take a picture of this but never did.

Another local shop opened onto the main road and I caught a glimpse as we drove by in a golf cart. I saw the industrial green of older but well cared for machines, which looked to include an 8" or 10" jointer, a table saw, a 14" or 18" bandsaw, and several other machines.

Because I was on an island, most of the wood was imported, and most of the woodworking in evidence was made right on the island. Joinery in most pieces was simple, but sturdy—generally butt joined, but sometimes rabbeted. I saw no dovetail or mortise and tenon joints; no doubt these complex joints required more time than could be afforded.

Mahogany and pine appeared to be the primary wood choices: this is the land of tropical woods, so mahogany is locally harvested and officially the national tree. On a tour of Mayan ruins I saw two mahogany trees that were easily 10 or 12 feet in diameter and grew tall enough to feel at home in Manhattan.

Most furniture examples were utilitarian, obviously assembled with glue and nails and either painted bright colors or covered with spar varnish to protect against the sea breezes and rough weather. Bracing was visible on all of these: a nod to the fact these joints would rack, and an attempt to prevent it. Still, all these chairs, tables, bars, and decks were sturdy, so this approach appeared to work well enough. I tend to over think my joints, and probably over engineer them as well. Here was an example of how glue and nail could do the job well enough. These examples would never last a century, but many appeared to have already weathered several years and remained serviceable.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Why Blog About Woodworking?

This post departs from woodworking and considers the act of blogging. I originally started posting about woodworking using HTML, creating static Web pages without the benefit of an editor. I wrote the pages in the Notepad text editor and used a Web browser to view the result. It took a lot of time and effort to create a page, and my posts were mostly about learning to write HTML and post it on the Web. The woodworking was just an excuse. You can find those early posts at

When I started the blog, I had some hope of being widely read, but I've since learned that for all but a select few bloggers, readership amounts to family and friends. The process has to contain value outside fame or fortune to justify the time and effort spent on it.

So why do I post about woodworking if I'm not an expert and I'm not widely read? I'm obviously getting something from the activity, and today I read a blog entry about Blogging as Reflective Practice (well outside the Woodworking blogosphere) that clarified what that is.

It turns out I'm not really looking for fame and fortune. In fact, as stated in my profile, "A Woodworking Odyssey is my way of thinking about and sharing the experience I gain." I think my real intent as it has developed is to use blogging as a regular reflection that also propels me to greater knowledge and productivity. It works to develop me as a woodworker.

Three years after starting regular posts, my writing experience informs every aspect of my woodworking experience and helps me learn more quickly about new techniques and deepen my knowledge of familiar ones. It makes me more considered and systematic in approaching a project:
  • If I'm having difficulty, I write and think about it (and sometimes receive a comment from much more experienced woodworkers, like Chuck Bender and Tim McReady).
  • When I work on a project I stop to take pictures of each stage—a habit that prevents me from making as many mistakes. That short photo break makes me look at what I'm doing, identify what steps are distinct and important, and try to find the best angle and focus for capturing the action. In the process, my thoughts shift from doing the work to observing it and I often learn about something before regretting it.
  • Afterwards, when I write about a process, I'm engaged in the reflective activity that Gina Minks wrote about in Blogging as Reflective Practice. I process the actions and thoughts I've had, refine them, and become expert in the process itself and in my approach to a project.
Awareness of this process may move my focus toward the learning process on each project. I think that will be a good thing for you and me—the only two people reading this blog ;)

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Shop Vignettes

I enjoy looking at shop spaces and projects. Here are a few recent photos from my shop:


The back side of my old Delta drill press has become an impromptu shrine to the kids: An origami whatsit from my eldest, and a note from the youngest. If you can't quite read the note, it says:
"Dear Daddy, I really love you and I really want to say I love you as much as Echo, because I love Echo a lot. To Daddy, from Marian"
Echo is the cat.


Above is a planing stop I built with nothing but saw dust. Oh, and glue and wire brads. Yes, the scrap MDF from the radial saw top and testing boards (I must post about this sometime soon—I have the pictures) has come in useful. This stop allows me to set the board unclamped on the bench and quickly plane both sides. It lets me plane down to 1/4" in width.


SWMBO recently started upgrading the kitchen. This involved some screw-together furniture, and a wish for one more shelf. The clear pine was almost too good for the project, but it was the perfect width with only one glue joint.

I don't know why the notches on the underside were so satisfying to make, but they were. These notches seat themselves on pegs, two of which I manufactured from the shanks of two wood screws (there were only two extra with the kit, and I just could not see paying Lee Valley $11 to ship me 50 more).

While making the shelf pegs I discovered that I no longer had a hacksaw (though I did have a hacksaw blade). Have you ever tried hacksawing by holding a loose blade in your hand? It makes the hand cramp up, so after a while I got smart and clamped it in a machinist's clamp. That was slightly better, but you can bet I bought a hacksaw frame when I went to the hardware store earlier this week.

This 12" wide, 10' long cherry board cries out to be used for something good, preferably before Christmas. Wish me luck with fitting this project in with everything else.


Two new additions to the shop, courtesy of Patrick Leach. I've wished for a grooving plane on many occasions, and now I have one. Will I ever do more axe hewing? I hope so. I just have to tighten the handle up in its socket and I'm all set.

I started the storm window stock preparation. Above was a rough rip and chop.

Then the pieces were jointed and planed to width at a friend's shop. I'm letting it aclimatize to the shop while I figure out when I'll have time to work further on it (maybe tomorrow after helping my brother-in-law lay subflooring in his new "man cave".


The pictures above almost speak for themselves. I cut a hole in the wall of the basement stairwell. Someday soon the plumbers will come and fix our plumbing, and I'm ready for them. For this project I pulled out the keyhole saw that had languished since I impulse purchased it from my friend Trevor.

Nothing beats the satisfaction of having the tool you need on hand, especially when you've never needed it for all the years you've had it.

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Sunday, November 9, 2008

My Boss

When the toolbox came upstairs for repair work last week, the cat appointed herself job-site supervisor. Notice the calm assurance that indicates her complete control of the project.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Lumber Runs

Last Saturday, during a trip to Downes & Reader in Stoughton, MA, I picked up some Freijo at $3/board foot. I selected 5 pieces of 4/4 stock that were roughly quarter sawn. They are 5" wide and about 3 feet long. I know nothing of the wood, but it is beautiful to look at. Wikipedia says it is also called Spannish Elm, Ecuador Laurel, or Salmwood, and as they say: it looks very much like teak. I'm looking forward to working this wood.

In about a week, I'm off to western Massachusetts to retreive some rough sawn oak and planksawn pine. I'm told there is about 150 or 200 board feet, and I'll need a place to put it. I should build a lumber rack soon. Fortunately, my brother-in-law was throwing out some perfectly good 2x6 lumber that he didn't mind me bringing home; so I have the supplies. I just need to build the rack.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Becoming Confident in Woodworking

Beginners really don't know what they don't know, and every new thing excites them. That enthusiasm carries them through a rocky road of poor and mediocre results (or in the case of the careful few, excellent if lengthy success). I remember the first shot of that enthusiasm, when moving into a new apartment and knowing I needed bookshelves.

On a plan provided by my prior roommate (who had built a set of shelves for my previous room) I bought a router, a 3/4" router bit, a set of countersinks, a pile of 1x10 pine, adjustable-height feet, a can of stain, and a box of wood screws. I already had a jigsaw, a couple of clamps, and a circular saw that my roommate and I bought at a yardsale. And some how, miraculously, I cut dadoes and rabbets, drilled holes, cut away the base to accommodate floor moldings, and ended up with two new sets of bookshelves that matched the ones I already had.

I didn't know I didn't know what I was doing: I just did it. And my wife and I are still using those bookshelves today:

They are simple, functional, and plenty strong. Many years passed before I was able to dive into a project like that again without worrying, and ultimately poisoning my experience with feelings of inadequacy.

Over the last few weeks, as I've worked to fix some problems with our house—like the rotted riser I wrote about earlier this month—that confidence has come back full force, and I've realized how much of success is just confidence and a willingness to act. It's important to know that you will achieve the results you want. It's good to forget what you don't know and be sure in your woodworking. And you don't have to have a lot of experience for that to be true.


Sunday, August 31, 2008

Updated Woodworking Link Farm

This morning I went through my Woodworking Link Farm to make sure the links still worked. I had to delete a few, but for many of them I was able to find the new address, and in the case of Bob Keye's Bench Pages, I was happy to find I could use a Wayback Machine link.

If you're looking to browse woodworking (and related) Web sites this could be a good start:

Even though I was going quickly through the links (to finish in one sitting), it was still fun to browse through these again.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Comment Moderation Turned On

Today I had to delete and repost an entry because of spam commenting (the comment didn't even have something to do with Woodworking). As a result, I've turned on comment moderation so I can stop this type of abuse before it happens. Don't worry: I'll only block your comments if they are somehow inappropriate for the site.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Return from Vacation

I'm back from two week's vacation and will start posting again soon. I did not find the primitive woodworking I had hoped to see while on the trip, but did have some woodworking experiences. I'll post pictures of the sand table and bench finishing projects soon.