Archive for the Category ◊ Ideas ◊

• Sunday, February 28th, 2016

tool cabinet

Just about all of us involved in woodworking have somewhere along the way received a pivotal benefit from encouragement, support, or an introduction to the craft from someone. If you have the opportunities, thank that person, then do the same for someone else.

Bob Flexner’s reasoned clarifications of all matters of wood finishing are among the most lucid explanations I have read, not only in the field of woodworking but anywhere. His books Understanding Wood Finishing and Flexner on Finishing are essentials for all woodworkers.

Just wondering: if you could program a laser to perfectly cut all the joinery in a work of your design, how would you feel about the finished piece? Further, how would you feel about woodworking in general and the aspects of it that are most important to you?

With all due respect to period reproduction furniture makers, it must be acknowledged that some of the most difficult steps of creating a piece of furniture have been already been done for them, not least of which is developing a coherent style within and among pieces.

Doing excellent work is never automatic. Of course, experience, good habits, muscle memory, and so forth are important, but to achieve excellent results you must bear down and concentrate each and every time. It doesn’t just happen.

Sharpness is a magic that solves so many troubles with tools and everything else in the shop. Yet I still hate to stop the workflow to sharpen.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” This speaks so much to us woodworkers, with our tools and wood, in our shops, perhaps bogged down by doubt. It’s worth posting in the shop.

Face it, we’re so lucky to be able to make fine things in wood.

Category: Ideas  | 4 Comments
• Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

Woodworking is such a small matter.
We take little pieces
Of what robes mountains and valleys
Then reconnect them in ways so naive.

Yet in making things
The joy of choosing is large.
Maple or cherry?
More or less curved?

Not only the trees
And us
But also from God,
Is this gift of freedom.


Category: Ideas  | 4 Comments
• Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

designing furniture

Renowned furniture designer Wendell Castle, in a wonderful 2008 interview by the late Neil Lamens, covered many aspects of the design process including the need to do a lot of sketchbook drawing and the importance of challenging yourself. He reminded us that mistakes can be evidence of having challenged oneself and their complete absence suggests one should “move the target back.”

Unfortunately, the videos of the interview do not seem to be available on Neil’s Furnitology site and blog, which are still online, so we cannot see his infectious enthusiasm as he spoke with Castle. Neil was a force of inspiration from which many woodworkers were fortunate to benefit. His kind and generous spirit left me encouraged and uplifted after every chat or email exchange.

There are two points I recall from the interview that particularly struck me.

First, Castle held that, far from dwelling on a design too much, there generally is not enough time spent on designing. Yes, we woodworkers like to git’r done and put a finished piece into a room. But good design takes work, sweat, revisions, and, at least for me, a degree of angst.

So I remind myself often of this sage advice from one of the great designers of our time. Furthermore, I forgive myself when struggling for seemingly too long with proportions, edge details, or whatever.

Second, in discussing how design is such an endeavor unto itself, Castle remarked, “You almost don’t have to build it.” Now, of course, he said “almost,” and keep in mind, he is a phenomenally prolific producer of furniture, but the remark prompted me to say, “Oh yes I do!”

In other words, juxtaposed to the first idea is the imperative to get to the point where all of the design hangs together and feels right. Maybe it will be refined on the next round but now it is time to build – time to make it real.

It’s important to recognize that time, neither arriving too soon nor deferred too long. I try to remember both.

Category: Ideas  | 4 Comments
• Tuesday, April 21st, 2015


OK, OK, I get it. 150,00 words – about the length of 2 1/2 non-fiction books, along with 800 photos, of woodworking techniques, tools, resources, jigs, and thoughts on the craft over the past 6 1/2 years, and what is by far the most popular post on this blog?

A joke. Yes, the recent April fool’s post featuring the profound research of the nonexistent Dr. Insane(o). OK, so that’s what you want. My webhost actually had to warn me about bandwidth overuse.

Seriously, this doesn’t bother me a bit. On the contrary, I am, as always, very grateful for the large readership of Heartwood. That post points up the value of laughter and the dangers in taking our woodworking and ourselves overly seriously. That some readers swallowed it whole only unmasks the wishful thinking to which all of us woodworkers are subject. It naturally arises from pursuing a craft that is more difficult than we might like to admit.

While I’m on the subject though, hey, a few more comments now and then would be nice. I’m of course interested in your thoughts on the posts but remember so are other readers.

Anyway, thanks again for reading and here’s a true classic to put a smile on your face. Yes, “They’ll be standin’ in lines for those old honky-tonk monkeyshines.”


Category: Ideas  | 4 Comments
• Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

Early on the long road to proficiency in a craft or any serious skill, there are many mysteries to solve. In this first stage, there are countless individual elements that are difficult to master and all together they can seem overwhelming. For example, the vast range of tools can be paralyzing for a novice woodworker, and to make matters worse, most new tools must be tuned or sharpened before they can even work properly.

Gradually, each element is conquered and these early mysteries dissolve. Despite this progress, there is a growing feeling that, “I know what all the buttons do but I can’t get the thing to work.” In other words, the elements still must be synthesized – another set of mysteries to solve. In this second stage, the developing woodworker who has learned to use all of the tools and make joints must still learn how to integrate many skills to actually make a piece of furniture.

This is the big picture and it is becoming clear. Now you know what you are doing and you know it. You can really make stuff. With continued ambition, more practice, and, of course, a fair share of missteps and even disasters, you can make better stuff. There will always be lots more to learn but the big picture is no longer a mystery.

After all of this comes a mystery of a different sort, an important one that is actually welcome and is meant to persist. The skillful person is now doing some things without being cognizant of why, at least at the moment, yet the moves are very right.

It is as if the program, so to speak, runs on its own – not always, but at least during some of the most productive times. Call it instinct, flow, intuition, grooved neural pathways, or just a lot of plain old practice, but there is indeed a wonderful mystery to it.

Sure, this happens during some days or hours and quite disappointingly not during others. Moreover, some flights of supposed brilliance could be very wrong, though that is a risk hopefully worth taking.

Here are some examples.

  • Watch the great soccer player Neymar. He is surely not aware at the time of exactly how he makes split-second moves on the field, and even afterwards probably cannot fully explain his mental processes.
  • All the studies and data in the world will never fully supplant the instincts of an experienced medical clinician or a financier, each faced with the unique specifics of a case at hand.
  • A craftsperson’s hands seem to have mind of their own.
  • A very good every day driver may save his life with a moment of prescience, and NASCAR drivers probably do this all the time.
  • A good teacher knows with a sixth sense how to reach each student as an individual.
  • Most wonderfully, a refined creative sense tells us that when it feels right, it is right.

So OK, this is a very good place to be but what of use can be said about it? After all, it is a difficult matter to deconstruct. Certainly, reaching this level is not easy and requires time, practice, and talent.

I think most important is the realization that this level of functioning cannot be borrowed or directly taught. This form of doing something truly well must arise uniquely within each person after the first two stages have been taught and learned.

This happens as you train, practice, and confront the expanse of your freedom with courage. This learning grows in the quiet moments of concentration when persistence seems inevitable and you trust yourself even if the effort is uncomfortable. With humility and some luck, mastery may be ahead.

The late, great basketball coach John Wooden said, “It is what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

Category: Ideas  | 5 Comments
• Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

For a craft or any pursuit that is meaningful to you, to do it really well, you must grant yourself freedom. And that takes courage.

Category: Ideas  | 4 Comments
• Saturday, December 13th, 2014

Marx Pocket Tools

Many woodworkers, knowing the joy that tools can bring, will give gifts of toy tools to young children, their own or those of relatives and friends. As Christmas approaches, here are some thoughts on the matter.

First, toy tools that actually do something are much more exciting than toys that resemble a tool but are capable of nothing. For example, a thing that looks like a power drill but can make only noise soon becomes boring – and boring is bad for kids and everyone else. A toy handsaw that cannot cut anything is likely to be quickly abandoned, while a toy saw that can cut something, even a potato, is much more fun. Within the range of age-appropriate complexity, even a simple active toy beats an elaborate passive one.

Second, toys that have open-ended tasks are more stimulating than those with narrowly defined tasks. For example, something like the classic wooden peg pounding bench is great fun for very little kids. Soon, however, the developing child will probably have a lot more fun with a tool for which he can decide the use instead of being restricted by the design of the toy. A saw that cuts or a set of little wrenches is limited only by imagination. Of course, you must consider safety and the potential for your home to get destroyed.

After all, that feeling of unboundedness and the swell of imagination are what tools are about at all stages of life. I remember somewhere in the early 1960s the now long-defunct Marx toy company made a line of miniature toy tools called Pocket Tools. Does anyone else remember the TV ads, “Uh-oh, dad ran off with his Pocket Tools again”? I carefully considered the capability of each tool in deciding which ones to ask my parents for. I wanted the tool, albeit a toy tool, to do something. The little Marx pipe wrench in the photo above, dear to me, really, really works.

Finally, what about a first real woodworking tool when your little boy or girl is old enough? I suggest a coping saw. Attach an inexpensive portable clamp-on vise to a sturdy table or countertop to secure the wood so both hands can stay on the saw handle. Get some pine wood and a bottle of wood glue and you’ve opened up unlimited possibilities. Spend time together; you are the assistant. Ensure safe work habits.

Merry Christmas/happy holidays to you and yours, dear readers.

Category: Ideas  | One Comment
• Tuesday, June 03rd, 2014

Readers of this blog may have noticed that the author has a few pet peeves. Among them are the belief in magic, pretending that woodworking is quick or easy, and purporting perfection.

Here’s another one.

We contemporary woodworkers have a lot of advantages. We benefit from access to lots of excellent instruction, centuries of accumulated craft wisdom, and great quality tools.

“So, Rob,” you say, “what’s the problem?” Well, there is the danger that the more there is of all that, the less there may be of any one of us. 

There is, however, an absolute protection from that danger. It is your brain, but only if you use it.

A technique, method, or tool is not right just because a guru said so. Now, of course, we should heed expert advice and ages of experience, but woodworking is right there in front of you, where the steel meets the wood, and the product of your work is also right there for honest appraisal by you and others. Though each woodworker does not need to reinvent the wheel, he should assess and choose what works at his bench in his shop.

The issue is how one might take in what is put forth. A technique, approach, or tool is good or bad on its own merit, and one can also have reasonable preferences among good options, but reflexive adherence is not the road to genuine craftsmanship or artistry. It is similarly foolish to offer the annoying “I was taught,” or eighteenth century dogma as the decisive justification for a methodology.

Consider that no instruction can cover all situations, woods, designs, and preferences. Moreover, technology changes, and no one is infallible. Many nuances of the craft are very difficult if not impossible to communicate but must be discovered through your hands. For these reasons and more, second hand information should become first hand – pun intended.

I think the right road is to continually learn and put the learning through your head and your hands, so that skills are not merely borrowed but absorbed, refined, and customized.

Thus, your woodworking will be grounded in solid technique but evolves to become your own. And that, in my view, is the heart of the matter here. Your woodworking is personal. Make it that.

Photo courtesy

Category: Ideas  | 2 Comments
• Friday, March 21st, 2014


A nice byproduct of messing around with photography using a fancier camera has been that I think I’m also improving my seeing skills for woodworking. By this I mean learning to better observe and process visual elements of composition and design.

The simple key is that this takes effort – it’s not automatic – and it takes practice. Sure, it’s easy to have an immediate reaction when confronted with a creative work. “Wow, beautiful,” or “Please, you’ve got to be kidding.” This sort of intuitive response does have its place and value, and, at the other extreme, over analysis is probably capable of dissolving any creative work into boredom.

Between the extremes there is a very valuable habit of pausing, observing, absorbing, and seeing what the maker has in mind, including if the maker is you.

It is similar to the difference between quick snapshots versus truly observing and appreciating the light and visual elements before you, then using your technical skills to compose a satisfying photograph.

Among many woodworkers, including me, there is a tendency to too soon get absorbed in the intricacies of construction and joinery. Pause and see first, I tell myself, and in this, photography is good training. Photography is humbling because so often the photograph shows you that what you thought you saw when you took the shot is not quite so.

It is amazing what the trained brain can see. During a guided walk in the woods with an expert naturalist, I marveled at his ability to spot interesting things that I walked right past. Yet, in the more subjective landscape of designing and making good work in wood, I think one must be similarly astute.

The main thing is that, just like cutting joinery, it takes effort and practice.


Category: Ideas  | 3 Comments
• Wednesday, March 12th, 2014


A project idea has taken hold, a concept has developed, and maybe you even have scale drawings. This could come to fruition but your jointer isn’t wide enough or your bandsaw isn’t tall enough. Or the boards you found for the project aren’t quite consistent in color and figure. Or your shop isn’t big enough, or you don’t have a real shop at all. And you really don’t have the time anyway.

It’s always something.

Always, because making real things is done in the real world with all its unsavory limitations. The wood is never quite right. There is always one more tool that would probably make the work a breeze. A wide belt sander? Sure, that will solve everything. Everything, that is, until the next limitation comes along.

Make it anyway. It won’t be perfect or just the way you want it, but it will be. Until then, it is nothing.

Let’s take an example from music history. What do you do if you are an organist renowned throughout Europe, later to be recognized as one of the greatest composers in history, you basically get canned from your job and move to a place where you have no access to an organ? It must have been like a woodworker with no planes! Well, I guess if you are Johann Sebastian Bach, you deal with the limitations and use the resources available to you to make stuff like this:

Bach violin sonata

Nearly 300 years later, the lack of a right hand does not stop Adrian Anantawan from playing these works. [The sample heard in most of the clip is from Partita #3 in E for solo violin, 3rd movement.]

So, what then, when the work is done? If the piece is the product of a sincere effort, it becomes its own point of reference, freed from the maker’s expectations, limitations, and nervous influence. Never perfect, but excellent, good, or just fair, it is nonetheless now on its own.

It is too late for substantive changes. This is just as well, because now everything hopefully seems right unto itself, at whatever level the work was done, including the imperfections and doubts, almost as if it was meant to be that way.

Deal with limitations, do the best you can, and accept the result for what it is. Make something.

It’s always something – until the thing is.

Category: Ideas  | 5 Comments