Archive for the Category ◊ Ideas ◊

Author:
• Sunday, January 31st, 2021
the why of woodworking

Disclaimer: Or what they do tell you but you might not notice.

For the last installment in this series, I present a simple idea that supports all of our work in wood. “They don’t tell you” this one because it is up to you, and maybe because it is obvious. Anyway, here it is: When you make something for a specific recipient or purpose or reason, you will be more energetic, you will concentrate more, you will be more efficient, and you will feel more joy. More, that is, than making something practically and in spirit only “on spec.”

Your reason for the project can range from furniture for your child/grandchild to just putting food on the table. (A table, by the way, that is probably not nearly as nice as the one you are making.) The reason may be internal such as your pure joy in building something, but is probably more powerful if it is also external to you. Maybe at the heart of it, your reason is ad majorem Dei gloriam.

So, as you develop a design, hunt for the wood, and fortify your shop, search also for your reason. Choose a good one and your chisel will be sharper and your saw will not tire.

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Author:
• Saturday, December 19th, 2020
best woodworking books

Disclaimer: Or what they do tell you but you might not notice.

I offer for your consideration the following four points regarding learning woodworking: 

1. No matter the amount of instruction you receive or the sources you consult, you ultimately have to get into your shop, and with your brain and hands, find your personal approach to building things with wood. This is not to say you should wing it, nor adopt a sophomoric attitude toward competent instruction, but you must find the way to deliver yourself – your talent, ambition, and, yes, courage – through your fingertips to the work on the bench. 

2. Learning is continuous. Yes, you reach a point where the general principles of woodworking come together in mind and hand, and from there it is easier to add new skills. But new frontiers are always out there, and will always be humbling and challenging. For me, some examples are use of non-wood materials, art skills such as carving and marquetry, bent lamination panels, along with many more. 

3. The corollary of the second point is to beware of being bedazzled by any so-called expert who you might think has seen it all and knows it all, and so can be relied upon for all definitive answers. Sure, there are some great woodworking teachers out there, but none that should supplant your common sense. We all have more to learn.

4. I’ve made this point before but it bears repeating. The most difficult part of making a piece is the big picture – putting all of the elements together. This is true, I suppose, of any field of endeavor.

The design must create enthusiasm. The wood, joinery, and construction plan must make sense to carry out the design. Each of the construction elements – stock preparation, joints, finishing, etc. – must be coordinated and carried out with cognizance of their roles along with particular attention to the critical junctures. Furthermore, you must be willing and able to make adjustments and corrections along the way based on continuous assessment of the work.  

The only way to get good at this, which is what really makes you a “good woodworker,” is to build things!

One more post in this series is coming.

Category: Ideas  | Tags:  | 4 Comments
Author:
• Sunday, November 29th, 2020

Disclaimer: Or what they do tell you but you might not notice.

I do not think I am much of a designer. I suppose that I am more of a composer, but certainly a woodworker. Metaphorically, I arrange the flowers but I do not breed and grow the blossoms. I might come up with a truly novel theme but I don’t count on that. I can recognize raw visual talent in others and their work but for as me, as Dirty Harry advised, “Man’s got to know his limitations.”

Anyway, looking at the body of work of most outstanding designers, there are typically just a few big ideas, maybe only one. The dedicated designer/artist/designer-craftsperson usually has to ride an idea for a long time through many iterations and refinements to bring it to full fruition. 

If you default to making things only from plans, or making only reproduction work, or everything you make looks “Shaker” because you think you cannot come up with a decent idea of your own, think again and give it a try. Please, this is not in any way to disparage plans, reproductions, or Shaker! They are all wonderful endeavors if you choose them. However, I do think that many woodworkers gravitate to them just because they are intimidated to try their ideas and designs. 

What “they don’t tell you” is that you can credibly venture into your own ideas. 

Your idea does not have to be great, grand, original (are any truly original?), or even fully formed. Maybe you will rework or build upon other ideas. We can call that “borrowing” if you like. For example, in my work, I have repeatedly borrowed (and reworked) elements of the Japanese torii gate motif. 

If you are inclined to take this route, I encourage you to give it a try. In the words of “woodworker” Sam Maloof, “You just have to try; you have to use your imagination.”

Category: Ideas  | Tags:  | 2 Comments
Author:
• Monday, September 28th, 2020
understanding wood

Disclaimer: Or what they do tell you but you might not notice.

Unless you get really good at understanding wood, you cannot be a really good woodworker.

A chef without a deep appreciation for the ingredients will always be at a loss for making outstanding food. You’re a woodworker. You make useful, beautiful things. Wood is your medium. It offers the infinite variability of the biological world, which gives it profound potential in your hands. 

Read the books. Start with Understanding Wood, by the late Bruce Hoadley, and Wood, by Eric Meier. Use the Wood Handbook produced by the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory for reference. Here are some resources.

Observe wood “in the wild” in furniture everywhere. Develop a discriminating eye and taste. See how wood ages. To develop a healthy obsession would not be overdoing it. 

Most of all, get lots of different wood in your shop and mess around with it. See how different species and different boards react to planing, joinery, being four-squared, finishing, and so forth. Understand grain and figure, and how to make the best structural and aesthetic use of them. Be aware of the options in manufactured boards – that’s wood too. 

But Rob”, you say, “Chill out, I just want to make nice bookcases and house stuff in plain old pine that I pick up at the home center. I don’t need curly maple.” OK, great, good work, but which boards do you select? All flatsawn, or should you search through the stack for some rift or quartered stock? What is the moisture content of the wood in the store, and what will happen later? Why is the pine you bought this time acting differently from the stuff you bought last time at the same store?

Bottom line: you must know wood and know it really well. 

The next time you look at a project article in one of the magazines, the wood will probably get passing mention at most. Most woodworking publications, unless specifically on the topic of wood, discuss little about it. But if you want to build something and make it good, think carefully about the wood. Use your knowledge, search widely if necessary, buy carefully, and think it through

A corollary of this imperative is that what works structurally and aesthetically in one wood may not work in another. The wood selection should be integrated into the design and construction plan. The hands-on techniques employed will differ depending on the wood. Except for the design itself, wood selection is the most important stage of a project. 

One more thing: wood can and will disappoint you – sometimes, but more than you might expect. Maybe it turns out to have weird defects, it dresses too thin, or it just doesn’t look like you thought it would next to that other wood, and on and on. 

Don’t just buy more, learn more.

So, yea, get your tools, your shop, your designs, your joinery skills, and even your super-sharp edges, but it cannot be overemphasized: don’t forget to get really good with the wood, and always continue discovering more about it.

Author:
• Sunday, September 27th, 2020
woodworking insights

Disclaimer: Or what they do tell you but you might not notice.

Learning in any field takes place on at least two levels. First, there are the overt knowledge and skills that necessarily dominate the instructional material and the student’s efforts. Yet, there are always the unwritten, perhaps even unsaid, insights without which we never feel truly in command of the field. This is “Oh, now I get the idea . . .” — on the road to mastery. 

With all due respect for the many wonderful woodworking teachers out there, it is difficult to transmit these key points in the environment of most formal instruction, especially written. In fact, these essentials may more often be “discovered” by the student in the quiet reflections of “putting it all together.”

These are the sorts of things that despite all your training, you realize six months into the job. Or that the instructor casually mentions in conversation after class when he sees what an eager student you are. Or that dawn on you during a long nighttime drive back home. These are synthesis ideas.

There is a simple continuing theme of this weblog: I greatly enjoy woodworking and find it meaningful. I want to help you do the same, particularly by discussing matters from a viewpoint that is typically neglected in most woodworking publications. With that in mind, I offer this series of posts to present what I think are pivotal nuggets in the various aspects of woodworking. I hope they help you leap ahead to better woodworking or at least reinforce your woodworking mindset. 

Hey, I’m not so foolish as to think I know it all, so please do comment to share your insights on each of the topics as we go through them. The first topic will be, of course, wood. 

Author:
• Friday, June 26th, 2020
woodworking dust collection

For the 500th post since the inception of this weblog in 2008, I would like to present the Grand Unified Theory of Woodworking. Concocted while emptying my dust collector, this offers deep insight to woodworkers and non-woodworkers alike as to what really goes on in the shop. 

And so: You start with a tree. Then, to produce a masterpiece you merely remove the exactly correct tiny pieces of wood (as shown in the dustbin pictured above) while retaining the exactly correct wood in the workpieces, which you then simply join together. Done. 

I present this ridiculous notion only to make a couple of points, which are hardly original but bear repeating.

The people who see and use what we make almost never understand the effort, time, skill, and expense required to make high-end woodwork. Perhaps this is only due to the nature of the craft – wood seems so accessible to work. More likely, it is partly or even largely the fault of woodworkers (like me). Most of the things we use in our modern world are made in huge numbers by computer-controlled machinery. In some cases, the consumer’s hands may be the first to ever hold the product. I think woodworkers should affably convey an understanding of what goes into our work to those who encounter it. 

Second, we woodworkers are similarly apt to forget that making excellent stuff is really difficult. Not to be whiny, but it is healthy to acknowledge that we are always dealing with some degree of workmanship of risk from which even the gadgetry of modern woodworking does not shield us. As a mostly subtractive process, woodworking can be unforgiving (again, see dustbin). For me at least, I have to remember to go easy on myself, trust my hard-won capabilities, and be always open to improving my skills.

It’s simple, really.

Category: Ideas  | 10 Comments
Author:
• Saturday, February 29th, 2020
woodworking thoughts

A good craftsperson never stops learning, so I have the habit of taking stock after completing a project to see what it has taught me. Often it is just a matter of reinforcing or reminding myself of things I already know – or “should know by now.” Here are some views from the caboose after a recent project.

1. It is so important to develop a solid design concept that you can trust throughout the tribulations and vicissitudes of building a project. Woodworking is not easy to do well, so you need the power of that concept to sustain your energy and optimism.

2. Make sure the design is good. You may need to redesign. Often, your early, unexamined assumptions are the most likely candidates to need refinement. Do not obsess, but do get it right.

3. 3M sandpaper products – regular sheets, flexible sheets, and random orbit discs – are flat out superior, and I see no point in using anything else. I can feel this stuff bite the wood like no other brand of abrasive that I have tried. Sandpaper is a tool.

4. Live edge wood furniture remains extremely popular, and I appreciate its appeal. But for now, I’m tired of it. I also have low regard for tables that consist of nothing more than a non-descript base under a slab.

5. Every effort in accurate, thoughtful stock preparation will likely be rewarded downstream in the building process.

6. Stock thickness disappears startlingly fast. Cupping, defects, and especially the dreaded twist, conspire to seemingly evaporate thickness. We are less likely to need a magical Board Stretcher than a Thickness Inflator.

7. Fiddly things drain energy and wear you down. These are things like altering hardware, fixing defects in wood, and finishing quirks. Plan to avoid them and find a better way.

8. The few minutes after making a mistake is the riskiest time for making a bigger mistake, maybe even the Big Mistake. Take a break, step back, and think. 

9. I think it is true: if I were to make this again, I could do it in less than half the time.

10. Krenov was right: “Worry less, concentrate more, and above all, relax.”

Best wishes to you with your projects, and I hope you never stop discovering.

Category: Ideas  | 14 Comments
Author:
• Wednesday, August 28th, 2019

There has to be a certain level of energy to carry you through a project. You need a good spark to start things off and enough fire to make it through the inevitable difficulties that come along. 

Where do you get this energy to build? Well, there may be secondary motivators – maybe you need to get it built for the money, to fulfill a promise, or you just need the item for its practical use.

At best however, “love and need are one” and sheer creative joy is driving you to build. Maybe it’s the design, and you feel you’re onto to something powerful. Maybe you’re eager for the challenge of a new or refined technique. Maybe the wood itself is so compelling that you can’t wait to build with it. 

In any case, you have a real problem if the fire is not truly there: if you sense the design is only so-so, or the materials are not compelling, and building will be grunt work that you don’t strongly care about. And you lack even secondary motivators. 

Well, in that case, I think it’s best to do something else! 

Make a decision. There’s no point in kidding yourself by further pursuing a project without The Energy. Try a different project. You’ll think of something. It might be better to just buy that bookcase that you were going to build, and instead build a table that you’re excited about. 

I’ve been down this road more times than I care to admit. I’ve found it best to be honest and tough with myself even if that means junking a project in which I’ve already invested considerable hours. Drawings get torn up and wood gets sacrificed. 

If the energy is not in you, it won’t be there in the final piece, and you’ll know it for always. And those who see and use the piece will know it too.

Category: Ideas  | 8 Comments
Author:
• Saturday, June 29th, 2019
my woodshop

A violin maker in Los Angeles, Hans Benning, relates a story from many years back when a man came to his shop seeking repairs on his violin. The violinist wanted Hans to come to his house to work on the instrument but Hans declined, explaining that all his tools and fixtures were there in his shop. The work could not be done properly on a kitchen table. After looking around the shop a bit, the man left.

Now this was no ordinary violinist who had come to Hans’ shop. It was Jascha Heifetz, one of the greatest ever, and his violin, an 18th century Guarneri del Gesù, was no ordinary violin. That’s right, Hans turned down work from the great Heifetz! The craftsman would not lower his standards.

A few days later, Heifetz returned, this time with the violin, and agreed to have the work done by Hans in his shop. This was the start of their 15-year working and personal relationship of great mutual respect. Some time later, Heifetz acknowledged to Hans that he appreciated Hans’ refusal to compromise his standards as a craftsman at their first meeting. 

Picture that. The most discriminating imaginable client, famous and at the pinnacle of his art, seeks your services as a craftsman on work of the highest caliber, and you say, “Nope, sorry, I don’t work that way.” But later he returns, seeing it your way, and the work commences. Wow.

So, here’s a thought. What if, instead of Jascha Heifetz, it is you who walk into your own shop. You have a conversation with Yourself, and walk away. Reconsidering, you decide to return and accept the conditions – and the work commences. 

It’s in your hands now.

Category: Ideas  | 3 Comments
Author:
• Friday, April 05th, 2019
woodworking thoughts

We want to build. We want to work at a pace and get things done

The key to working at a craft the way we should work – where the job is done well and we are well – is to coordinate the pace of four factors. Let’s consider what’s really going on when we work.

The hands must work with clear intent, guided by skill embedded into muscle memory. For most good craftspeople, this is usually not a limiting factor. Rather, the hands that can easily run ahead of the other factors, which leads to awkwardness and fumbling. We all know what happens when the hands rush ahead of the brain. You neatly saw on the wrong side of the line or cut yourself with a chisel that you’ve picked up a thousand times.  

The mind must focus unwaveringly on the specific task at hand, yet maintain cognizance of its place in the overall mission. The mind, of course, governs all and so is the master pace setter. Try to outrun it, and trouble comes: “How did that happen?” – a surprise mistake that really isn’t surprising. Skill of mind is the greatest skill. 

Each of our tools must be put to work within the range of its intended purpose, not forced beyond it. So, maybe you should chop that waste in two passes, not one. And the tablesaw has only so much horsepower. Push a tool beyond its limits and you’ll both pay the price. For a craftsperson, knowing your tools is almost like knowing yourself. 

The body must be respected with regard to energy limitations and fatigue. It is not a machine. Usually, posture is the first thing to break down. When core stability breaks down, the fine motor tasks performed by the hands will suffer. If your work is becoming less accurate as a session in the shop proceeds, consider that core/posture fatigue may be the cause. 

When these four factors are exerting synchronously, you are happily at ease and do good work. This is peaceful productivity and efficiency – the way we should work, and the way things best get done

Sadly, many, maybe most of us, are pushed in our pay-the-bills jobs with little regard for the truths of human work, driven by the fantasies of those who do not actually do the work but instead tell others how to work. (Anyone remember Lucy in the chocolate candy factory?) Appreciation of the work dissipates. We become detached from it, and from ourselves.

Happily being human almost always includes integrating our various faculties, being cautious not to neglect parts of our true nature.  Hopefully, we can work well in the woodshop as we produce, and do so with joy. Work is best when we pace it this way. And it is the way we live best

Category: Ideas  | 4 Comments