Saturday I got to spend an entire day in my shop. The planets aligned, and only the fallen leaves in my backyard protested my ignoring them. Now, it may be strange that while my commute to the shop is less than a minute, I have to struggle to get to it. But, I still have a day job, family commitments, a blog, a garden to prepare for winter, and household duties. On Saturday, it all worked out, and that evening I looked over a very respectable amount of product completed, ready for finishing or prepared for the next steps.
Just because that day was productive does not mean that other days away from the shop were not. I try to make up for the time away by thinking through shop processes while doing other things.
I am not very detail-oriented by nature, and this is an integral part of my creative day because not all craft or art is intuitive and creative. Some of it is planning, looking for places to improve, figuring out what you’ve done wrong, and finding answers to earth-shattering questions- where the heck did I put the ultra-fine steel wool? In other words, drudge work. So you get nada, nothing, zilch completed in terms of product produced. But you prepare to get things completed.

I have several problems that will never go away, and I have to learn to work around them. The first is that several surgeries left my vision impaired several years ago, and I’ve had to relearn carving with the deficiencies. The second is that I am not detail-oriented, and I’ll miss things that, on later viewing, are pretty important. So, OK, yes, I am very distractable.

Vision changes led to about three years of almost no carving before I decided to get active again. I was glum about the prospects but focused on what I could do, and worked around the deficiencies. For the most part, I now have difficulty carving lettering and doing things like chip carving. Unfortunately, those are things that produced a fair amount of income.
On my second issue, I now rely on photography to check on my slip-ups. As I carve, I now photograph. It’s a perceptual issue, not one caused by my physical problem. When I look at the photo, I frequently see problems in the finish that I missed. For me adapting technology has been a great help. For example, most of my small letter carving now gets done with a laser engraver, and the camera in my phone is a fast and handy way to evaluate problems.

As a fellow crafter, I’ve talked with other craftspeople. I’ve also worked with them as an anthropologist working on field projects or program development. So it’s reasonable to say that there are many approaches to work, problem resolution, and handicaps. But, unfortunately, I’ve read books and attended classes with people who only see one way to make the grade– their way. So my advice is that you take what works for you and ignore the noise.
Skills and tools are great aids in creativity and problem solving. While I’d never suggest that there is a solution to everything I would suggest that attitude, is central to finding your way around problems.

Methods of work: the nail board

Inelegant, unattractive, and probably never seen on a photoshoot for Fine Woodworking – it’s a nail board. I first learned the utility of this ugly beast working in a boat shop. It’s the ideal solution to keeping an odd or unbalanced piece of wood off a work surface while you paint or varnish it. The popular painter’s pyramids are another solution, but balancing an oddly shaped piece on them can be challenging. This humble board with drywall screws was made in a moment and did the job. It’ll get stored under a bench after its use for some future need.

If you are into elegant, I am sure you could cut a nice piece of walnut, precisely measure the placements, and use bronze fittings. But then you’d feel guilty about all the paint and varnish that builds up in it. Besides, I just wanted to get the damn thing varnished, not make a work of art.


My oldest son would never read instruction manuals. Of course, lots could go awry with this strategy. His native engineering talents could usually extract him from near disaster, though. I wondered aloud where such a stubborn trait originated, only to meet the stares of the entire family focused on me. Did I unwittingly train my son this way?

Yes, but not quite. I have some built-in learning disorders that make reading blocks of a small, close type challenging to read. In addition, the English used in the manuals is so poor that three pages in, you are skipping whole chapters looking for what you need.

I figure that he saw my frustration and took it to its logical conclusion: manuals stink. So we all may now should say a humble thanks for all the online videos that supplant the manuals. I have come to believe manuals are deliberately getting written to be impenetrable.

Sometimes there is nothing for it but to dig into the manual; even my son now agrees with this. But if you need to hone the skills learned in the manual, that community of fellow users, crafters and artists has now become indispensable.

Some of my favorite tool vendors, Lee-Valley, Rockler, and others, have realized this and now have entire libraries dedicated to using their products. The world of instructional videos can be a Wild West of unregulated data, so this is good. 

Many videos are wonderfully generous in offering free training on complex subjects. But some are dangerously negligent.

Those of us who operate high-powered woodworking equipment, capable of taking fingers in a single pass, need to take care. If something looks dangerous, maybe it is. So step back, Shudder, and dig into the manual.

Bowls and Scrapers – Flashback Friday – August 13, 2019

Sooner or later, most woodworking sites and blogs have some sort of post on scrapers. Rather than duplicate what others have demonstrated in the care, feeding, use, and maintenance of scrapers. I’d like to point out that they produce much less dust than sanders – that’s a hell of a significant point when you have a confined shop and allergies. They also can give you a crisper, almost cut, finish. If you look at the picture of the bowl with all the shavings, you’ll notice that they are shavings, not dust. A properly sharpened scraper produces shavings.

In this instance, the birch short had been around the shop for about ten years. At some point, I had outlined a bowl shape on it. Last week I moved it from the maybe soon bucket to the on schedule bucket. A few days ago, I rough shaped the outer contours and took some latex caulk to the bottom. I used the bead of caulk to paste a pine cleat to the base; when I no longer need to secure the bowl in a vice or a clamp, the caulk will quickly release with some alcohol and a putty knife. Cleaning up the caulk is easy with the scraper. In the meantime, It will take all the rough handling I can give it while shaping the bowl.

Today, I needed a break from some other work, so I roughed out the inside of the bowl. A few years ago I would have done all of this with hand gouges. These days I use a variety of Arbortech ball gouges and Kuztall discs to rough out the bowl. Warning: these tools require a dust mask, face shield, glasses, hearing protection, and heavy-duty gloves. Not used with care, they will cause severe industrial injuries. But, in hardwood like cherry, maple or birch, they save labor on the rough out. I like to use these tools out of doors. They produce prodigious amounts of chips.

After roughing out, I used a relatively flat gouge to clean up the shape to the proportions I wanted. At this point, you might be tempted to get the sander out, and I won’t tell you that it’s wrong to do. It comes down to work style.

I reached for my scrapers and put in about forty-five minutes, smoothing out the inside of the bowl. When I thought I liked the result, I applied a bit of Turps to the wood and observed all the holidays, dings, and other imperfections I did not see while the bowl was dry. Another test is to close your eyes and run your fingers around in the bowl. If you don’t like the feel of a bump or a small divot, chances are that the client might not either. Closing your eyes to see is a much underutilized free tool. Tomorrow I’ll go back with a pencil and highlight the areas I need to fix before I start to work on the outside.

This is a carved bowl, not one turned on the lathe. I tend to leave more meat on the sides and bottom of these. My goal is not to make a fragile walled vessel, but one which has some substance to it

My final picture shows a selection of scrapers and scraper tuning tools. Not shown are my collection of little homemade scrapers; they are pretty easy to make to any pattern you desire. The scrapers pictured, and more, are available from a host of suppliers for a wide variety of prices. If you don’t have any, I advise that you buy a basic set from a reputable dealer, like Lee Valley or Woodcraft Supply. Most of the people who are disappointed in scrapers have not put the time in on learning how to set them up. I know, because for years I was one of them.


I think I have a reputation for raffish workshop areas. The photo is of my workshop in the mid-nineties. I’ve never been able to have the sort of lovely shops you see in the woodworking magazines. It would be sheer pretense anyway. My shops tend to get set up wherever there is room; esthetics be damned.
Still, there should be some requirements for work areas. You might think size would matter, but I’ve known carpenters with hatches cut into their shed backs so they could work with long planks. And an early mentor of mine worked in the corner of his kitchen. So not size.
Thinking on it, I’d say that the criteria are good light, a stable work surface, and a handy place to rack tools ready for use. Depending on how much stink or dust you create, you need to add ventilation.

One of my earliest shops spaces was a picnic table, a carver’s hook, and my tools. This “shop” was in the woods of Ontario. I wasn’t lonely in this shop. I had to put up with a pair of Whiskey Jacks ( Canadian Jay’s) who’d come by and noisily critique whatever I accomplished ( unlike most critics, though, they’d shut up for an oatmeal cookie). I use that recollection as a reminder to myself that creative areas do not need to be complex.
People say to themselves, “Wait. When we move or retire, I’ll have a lovely workshop like that one in Fine Woodworking.” My advice is that you not wait. Creativity in wood can work well under simple circumstances. You may have to scale your projects to size, but you have no excuse for not being creative.


Woodworkers spend money on foolish things every year. Why? We see it on the web in a video or the catalog and realize that it is the solution to a problem we do not have. So out flashes the credit card, and next week we are looking for storage space for the new item.
Most of what we buy gradually finds its purpose. In my shop, neatly put aside in chests, rests the tool porn I could not resist: my collection of Leigh Valley planes. Now, remember I am a carver. So I may trot the beauties out once a year, exclaim over them, ” My Precious!!”, use them for ten minutes, and away they go for another year. I might also trot them out to show visiting woodworkers; they are pretty impressive.
But resting in one for the drawers are the set of exquisite Japanese chisels that I bought in the early seventies that have never been used. Back then, I envisioned a different shop and future, making elaborately carved chests. The chisels were to be part of my primary toolset. Guess what? They’ve never been used. I take them out and clean them once in a while. The vacuous look on my face says it all. I still haven’t figured out how I’d use them.
Now I’m sure that you have your little secrets tucked away also. But, before you gainsay me, let’s take an inventory of the: pots, pans, mechanics tools, yarns, or photographic equipment that sits idle. I’m not accusing you of waste or impulse purchases. It’s just that despite carefully considered plans, things can go in wildly different directions.
The chisels are my touchstone to early days, and I probably will not part with them. However, I have parted with other things that don’t and never will fit into my work scheme.
Some years ago, I gave away a set of high-quality miniature turning tools to a turner who had the will but no tools. I had the tools but no intention to turn. It worked out well. At Christmas time, I was gifted with some lovely miniature Christmas tree ornaments, a small bowl, and a few other items. I also cleaned my carving tool collection of unnecessary duplicates by gifting knives and gouges to students.
The critical thing in gifting things is to consider the utility and need you have for the tool, not how much it cost you. Frequently people keep what they neither want nor need, based on its cost. That’s a false economy. You paid for it years ago, and its resale value might be pennies on the dollar. Give it to a good home.


Don’t be in a hurry. Take a break and regard your work. I don’t mean the usual of turning it upside down or taking it outside to look at from a distance. You should do all that too. No, I mean take a sedate journey on new ventures. Let them sit in the shop until you’ve lost your drive to complete them rapidly.
I have three ship portraits sitting in the shop that I stopped work on several months ago. They had problems, and I needed time to let my “back shop” analyze them and suggest remedies. Sometimes photos, drawings, and plans don’t tell the whole story, and a portrait doesn’t jell to perfection. So there it sits on a back shelf where I can look at it as I turn around but not think of it.
Yesterday the back shop – my pre-conscious mind- suggested the solution to an issue with the portrait of the steam yacht Zaida. So I’ll get one step closer to finishing it and getting it out of the shop.
Zaida was beginning to look to me like a returned expatriate, and that was good. I’d forgotten my original vision for the project and could better look at it as a stranger. Moreover, as a stranger, I could see what changes needed to be made to complete the project.
So on new designs especially, grant yourself the gift of time to sort out the plan.

Flashback Friday – July 16 – Critical Tool?

Articles regularly appear in the woodworking periodicals about the essential power tool in your shop. The authors make convincing arguments for their choices, too. I prefer to think in terms of what suite of crucial tools makes your work possible? Your answer will vary with the materials you work with, how you change them, and the product you produce.
I’ll use my work as an example. In my work carving portraits of boats and ships, I need to resaw thick stock into thinner frequently. I then need to plane stock to the final thickness. My indispensable power tools are my bandsaw and my planer. I also have a small power jointer, but I have a shooting board and an old jointer plane that work as well. The shop is too small for the sort of jointer that you might find in a boat shop or cabinetmakers. As a result, the blades on the hand plane are sharp, and the sole is polished for when the little 6-inch power jointer won’t do. Without the jointers, I wouldn’t be able to glue up the panels I need for portraits. This suite of tools speeds my work. Could I do without them? Yes. There was a time before I could afford these aids, and I used small portable and manual tools to complete the tasks just like my 18th and 19th-century antecedents. I am thrilled that I no longer have to do that.

If I was a cabinetmaker, my bandsaw might gather dust because the star of my tool suite could be the table saw. But, as you see from the picture, my table saw serves as a place to stack recently resawed boards for a series of mast hoop portraits of small sailing craft. Likewise, my router table serves as a place to stack small logs before I resaw them; it’s a power tool that sees heavy use in many woodworking shops.
Most of us have limited space and limited funds to spend on tools. You must think in terms of space available and which tools are critical to your work. That large console table saw with digital readout to ten decimal points might have you drooling and daydreaming. But putting together a suite of tools that gets the job done is a better use of resources.
My primary goal is to get the wood to my carving bench with the minimum work, cost, and effort. Not till then do I start the most enjoyable aspects of my work. So think about that as you plan tool purchases.


Referring to love, the hook on the song Searching for a Heart by Warren Zevin says, “you can’t start it like a car, you can’t stop it with a gun.” Creativity is the same way. It trickles, moves like a pendulum, can’t be put in storage against future needs, and generally won’t cooperate with your demands.

I’ve known people who swear by rituals, regimes, relaxation techniques, retreats, and of course, those perennial favorites alcohol and drugs. But, unfortunately, what works for one may not work for others. Worse, what works for years may suddenly fail you as you create vapid design after vapid design. And off you go Googling creativity stimulants.

What often works for me is to hie off to an exciting museum exhibit, shops, and bookstores for browsing. Then, I’ll wait until I get home, take out an idea notebook, and scribble down anything that jarred an idea loose. It’s not that I’m looking for things to copy, but that looking at great work, good work, and even junk gets me thinking along the lines of -“why not do this instead?” The time between an idea notebook and workshop can be years. So it’s not like you need to rush off and do it immediately. 

I think Raymond Chandler suggested that great stories are distilled, not written.

Creativity works this way; “you can’t start it like a car. You can’t stop it with a gun.”


I am sure that a visit to one of the big box crafts retailers will not be a disappointment. It might even astonish with the variety and amount of material to make unique with the paints, beads, putty, vinyl, or glitter you can find on the shelves. Don’t know what you want to do? That’s OK, wander the aisles for an hour or so and fill a cart. You’ll have more than enough to keep you going through the next pandemic.

Full disclosure time: I, too, can be found haunting the aisles at Crafters Heaven. Some stuff is too time or labor-consuming to make on your own. I’m not about to spend hours compounding pigment, binder, and solvents to make paint. 

Like all things, it’s what you make of it. There are good quality shows that will not jury you into the show if too many components of your work are prefabricated. Craftspeople refer to items made from prefabricated items as “Granny Crafts.” So before you eagerly take wing to an exciting destiny as a well-to-do craftsperson (snigger), take careful note of what is in good quality shops, fairs, and markets.

Good crafts and art are transformative. Common materials are transformed into lovely watercolors, spoons, pottery, or boxes. It’s less about the materials and more about how you transcend the material. For example, an artisan I met at one show used common birch tongue depressors, felt, and crafts paint to make clever puppets. On seeing them, you did not think – oh, tongue depressors, glue, paint, and felt. Instead, you saw imaginative play with engaging characters.

We won’t always create great crafts or art. But that realization shouldn’t stop us from trying. 

%d bloggers like this: