A long game

Wood swells and shrinks with humidity despite careful construction, drying, and sealing. We call this movement, and most commonly, we see it across the width of a plank or piece of wood. This is why you sometimes see splits in panels of wood. Wood remains a living item despite being cut, resawn, planed, shaped, and coated. All our work in creating from it needs to respect this fact. If you sell your work as I have, you want to control that movement. It’s embarrassing when a cutting board fails due to poor construction. Preparing wood, so it is not likely to move excessively and split is what comes before you carve or shape the wood. It can be a long game, but it results in quality down the line.

That’s why I dug through drawers in the shop the other day. I was looking for my moisture meter. I was about to glue up some blanks for boat portraits, and I wanted to check the moisture content of the wood. This little doodad comes in handy around the shop when you need to build cabinets or construct glued-up cherry blanks for projects like ship and boat portraits or cutting boards. Although I’ve known some woodworkers who thought of these as expensive toys or other junk to clutter up the shop, they serve an essential purpose.
I admit to waiting until their prices came into my budget before buying one. Since then, though, I have faithfully used it.

I resaw my own cherry planks for much of my small work. Recently it’s all air-dried stock that initially came in as small logs. I rough saw it, paint the ends to prevent cracking, and let it sit for a year. Eventually, the small logs get taken to the bandsaw and milled into rough planks. The rough planks are now allowed to dry inside or under cover. All the while, the moisture of the wood is going down slowly. Cherry, which I favor, is a bit of a PIA to dry correctly. Dry it too fast, and it splits. So the rule is to let it take its time. I want the wood to be between 6 and 9 percent humidity when I work it into a box, toy, cutting board spoon, bowl, or portrait.

Doing things this way is playing the long game. It’s more time-consuming than going to a lumberyard and getting Alleghany cherry plank stock that has been kiln dried. But the native cherry has a more delicate coloration and grain that I’ve come to prefer. Of course, my tool and shop limitations make this viable only for the smaller projects, but that accounts for eighty or ninety percent of my work these days.

So sometimes, the long slow game is best.

Old Tools Don’t Have To Wear Out

This is an original Black and Decker Workmate from the 1980’s. For a while in the ’80’s it was my only carving bench. Then in the ’90’s it went to shows where I was doing demonstrations. Currently it lives outside the carving shop as a solid platform for working on projects that produce prodigious amounts of wood waste, like bowls.

From the paint and varnish you can see that I also use it for finishing. In all those years the only thing that has broken is one of the plastic handles. Today, I got around to replacing part of the bench top. It finally rotted away. Later this summer I’ll make a new one for the opposite side.

I doubt that any of the later iterations of this work surface could take as much abuse as this has and still be working. And remember it sits outside through New England winters.

The plastic hold down on the rear surface is a recent add on from Lee Valley – they are still making add ons that fits this bench.

If you find one of these at a flea market or yard sale give it a good look. It was made solidly in the USA when * Black and Decker was a top tool maker. I expect mine to keep going for many more years.

*As an aside I add that many later imitations were made of the original but did not have the sturdy steel construction.

Compact tools for efficiency and cost

I was reading an online review of a compact router a while ago. An otherwise well-regarded model was getting trounced. To paraphrase: ” I was routing two-inch green, live oak. After forty feet, the AceyDoucy 400 seized up on me. Don’t buy this router. Oh, and AcyDoucy customer service was terrible too. My next router will be the Totem 124XlR; it has excellent reviews!”

You see this sort of thing with compact tools often enough to make you think twice before buying. Of course the compact will not stand up to the punishment you can dish out to the full sized pro tool. They were never designed to. But that doesn’t mean that there can’t be good reasons and circumstances to use a compact. Here are three that are important to me:

Space – they are compact and tend to take up less space than full size.

Cost – they cost less than their full-size siblings.

Capability– Since first introduced, there have been many improvements in their capacity. If you are respectful of the machine’s capabilities, you can expect excellent service.

In my basement shop, I have a full-sized bandsaw, jointer and router table and all the doodads which belong in that shop. But ninety percent of the time, I am working in my greenhouse carving shop and don’t want to run into the house and downstairs to do some tiny job. For those small jobs, I have compact versions that add utility to the carving shop and save a lot of time. I am not going to process 200 feet of teak on my small router table, nor am I about to resaw lots of cherry on the 10-inch bandsaw. But if all I’m doing is cutting some small project wood or trimming some boards, my compact tools do the job.

If you have a small workspace, do think about compact tools. They fit in small spaces, have a lower cost, and will do the job.

For my greenhouse shop, I chose a Rikon 305 10 inch bandsaw (the 306 was not on the market yet), and a Lee Valley compact router table. I equipped the router table with a smaller DeWalt router. But there are several good machines from which to choose. Just for clarity: I am not associated with Rikon, Lee Valley, or Dewalt. As with any purchase, the available tools will include the good, bad, and ugly. Take your time comparison shopping. One last tip: be wary of those review articles which rate “The ten best ——– of 2022.” They don’t always get it right.

Lots of us have small shops either through design or necessity. In my case, I deliberately downsized as I shifted from doing larger maritime work like quarterboards and transoms and started focusing on ship and boat portraits. Whatever reason you have for smaller quarters, I encourage you to rethink the conventional wisdom that large is always best.


You probably receive several monthly fliers from the tool manufacturers. If you’ve worked in wood longer than six months, the shiny things come in every few weeks. These insinuate that you’ll be a better craftsperson with their reverse bobtail jointing jig ( only $175.00). Of course, you don’t even know what a reverse bobtail joint is, but you’ll pour over the glossy pages with pure tool lust in your eyes. We refer to this as “tool porn” in the clinical community and expect it to appear in the next release of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The manufacturers wage war through their fliers, and we are the unfortunate targets. Examine the flyers closely. Note that the largest manufacturers sell pretty much the same stuff: vacuum and dust extraction equipment, jigs of all sorts, add ons for power tools, tools for the lathe addicted, and lots of little doodads you have to have.

They are primarily interested in people doing carpentry and cabinet work. The tools for this take up more room than most of us have in our entire homes, and the shops the tools are staged in reflect this. “Equip your shop with us, and all this will be yours!”

OK, I didn’t mean to pick on you directly. This winter, I too fell prey to the fliers and bought two jigs that have promised to make my table saw hum with precision.
Not until I emerged from the fugue and haze of tool porn did I recollect that the table saw is my least used tool in the downstairs machine shop. I am much more likely to use my bandsaw.

It would be best to automatically consign the darned things to the recycle bin on arrival. This way, you’d only go looking for a new tool or jig when an actual need cropped up in the shop. Remember, each of these things occupies storage volume. So, between infrequent uses, it has to be stored.

I’ve convinced myself. The glossies are going directly into the recycle without being opened. I already have enough storage issues, and the cost of the new doodads needs to get offset with either more efficient work practices or more significant profits. We can’t get rich making the tool makers wealthy, can we? So let us all go forth and sin no more!

Lost and Found

Yesterday it went over the fifty-degree mark in the carving shop. So I went out to sort through almost done projects left from the end of the December rush. Mostly I was looking for a way to store them until I completed the early spring cleanup. However, I tend to get a bit rambunctious, so it makes sense to get the all-most done separated before I accidentally drop something on them. Remember, the carving shop is only an eight-by-ten greenhouse. Stowage is always a problem, so cleaning up means lots of reorganization.
The ramifications of reorganization are always that something gets unearthed that I carefully put away, so I’d be sure to find it later, but I can’t remember where. There is a bit of angst involved in this as I consider that those things that I am currently organizing will become among those lost till the late spring reorganization. If I were truly organized, I’d have an index or inventory, but it’d take months to complete, and by then, it would be obsolete.
I am looking for a new packet of taps for tapping the maple trees for syrup. I bought them in January, left them where I could easily find them, and now can’t locate them.

The problem is not so much one of forgetfulness. And by the way, I was just as organized at twenty-five as I am today fifty years on. But, no, the issue is that you tend to move stuff around in a small shop. So you need to find other stuff or get the room you need to perform a particular process. So anything in the way gets moved when you veer from one process to another. After a while, you envy those big shops people in the magazines tend to have. There is enough space for multiple workbenches, large aisles, and generous room between machines.

OK, after a while, envy turns into resentment. I’ll bet some of their shops are so big that they wander around lost in thought; “where did those darned screws go! I just put them down over by the planer!” It may not be accurate, but it makes me feel better.

Sometimes after an hour of this I just need a hug!

The New Bandsaw

This winter, I have been enchanted by my new bandsaw. What? A bandsaw, enchanting? If you are a woodworker, yes, delighted and enchanted.

My venerable Delta, 14-inch bandsaw, died last year. After multiple rebuilds, numerous enhancements to increase its accuracy, and lots of loving, it failed.
While carefully comparison shopping for its replacement, I made do with the small ten-inch capacity Rikon saw I keep for light work in the carving shop. It was a trial. It did mitigate the loss of the larger saw somewhat but had neither the size nor power needed for many shop chores.
After I made my choice, finding a saw occupied lots of time. Vendors offered saws for sale that they did not have, couldn’t guess if they’d actually have, or which they had, but it was sitting offshore as part of the great supply chain SNAFU of 2021. I had heated and visceral arguments with hardware dealers about their integrity.

I ordered in June for an estimated delivery date of October. I was almost flummoxed when it arrived unannounced in late August – all three hundred pounds of it. To get it into the basement workshop required a custom-built ramp, some seamanly rope work, and three people.
The new saw, a Laguna 14/12 with a horse and a half motor, proved to be a better saw than the beloved old Delta. As a result, the sound of resawing can now frequently be heard as I reduce small cherry logs into small cherry planks.

As you may know, I am famous for picking through my woodpile for wood too good to be burned. I am now unchained. My mania for seeing what lies inside the hear of a log is unrestrained. All the “good stuff” is put aside for further drying, and all the scrap is kindling for the stove.

The only problem is that I’ll pull out a piece of kindling, show it to my wife or son, and say, “it’s too pretty to burn.”

My wife and daughters had enough the other day when I started lining up kindling on the dining room table to take photographs. The tablecloth, they assured me, was ruined.

It’s cold in the downstairs shop, but I have been exiled there till I learn to behave. But I have my bandsaw for company!


Christmas list for the shop:

  • Additional dust collector for the basement shop
  • Lee Valley Panel Gauge
  • new respirator cartridge replacements
  • new hearing protector “earmuffs.”
  • new safety glasses

Only one of these falls into the strict category of “tools,” the panel gauge. Most woodworkers wood refer to others as a sort of accessory product. Not something you’d use for making a wooden product for your store, your next show, or to decorate a commission.

Many woodworkers would consider some of the things on my list to be hindrances in the shop. For example, the little Rikon dust collector rolls around and is a tripping hazard. It can be hung on the wall, but then the panel saws that belonged to your father would have no place to hang. Also, the damn respirator gets in my way when I do close-up work, and the hearing protectors get in the way of the respirator fit. Finally, when you add the safety glasses, I look like something from a 1959 Sci-Fi movie.

Most of the woodworkers I know are odd combinations of very reticent to adopt new things and over-eager to embrace and spend on new gadgets. The gadgets promise to make your life in the shop easier. One is seen as getting in the way, and the other as the key to woodworking paradise.

It all works out until your hearing becomes impaired or you begin wheezing.

There is one dust extractor in the basement shop, two air scrubbers for tiny particles, and a shop vac. The carving shop has an air scrubber as well as a shop vac. In the carving shop, I produce less dust but more chips. Both shops have respirators, glasses, dust masks, and hearing protection. I make every effort to make sure that I use them.

Overkill? I don’t think so. Look, I have intermittent mild asthma. I am very interested in making sure that it does not get worse.  

Being breathless is something I can do without. Hearing? I love the sounds of the birds outside my shop. I’m not interested in losing what I’ve got. My sight? Try being a woodworker without vision – I’m already mildly impaired and have no desire to lose what I have.

I once worked at a job site where the motto was that safety was a habit we all need to form. So we learn to work around the nuisances if we want to continue creating. Safety equipment used to make made rare appearances in tool catalogs and online. Not so now. Take a hint from the companies you buy the toys from and make shop safety a habit.

I’ll tell you all about the Lee Valley panel gauge in a later post. It’s sure to make life in my shop easier and more pleasurable. Toys, you can’t live without them!

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.

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.

Facile Bonum Est

In the early days of developing a Folklife program for a governmental agency, a planner in another department asked how we came up with so many neat program ideas. We were flattered by the compliment, but my colleague and I looked at each other, hemmed and hawed a bit, and then expressed our formula: 

” Simple; easy, is good.”

“So- Facile Bonum Est?” – Easy (or simple) is good?” The little epigram became the motto of our center and the guide for all our programs. Avoid over-complication. I carved a simple banner with that on it for our office.

Avoiding complicating things applies all over: from plot complications in novels, cooking, folklife programs, and of course, my favorite woodwork. 

You can’t put too much complication into a gouge. You might alter the handle, the tang, or the steel, but the essential tool seems to have been the same since Roman times. You can, of course, complicate sharpening. And that’s what many people have done. As a carver, it’s your choice how deep in the weeds you’d like to go with that. Up to that point, the complications are a personal and additive choice. 

When we come to power tools, it’s another story. Manufacturers add on “improvements” that promise to improve the quality of the product.

A few years ago, my ancient Delta power planer bit the dust. It had about twenty years of hard duty on it, planing everything: pine, oak, cherry, lots of mahogany, sassafras, and more. In the parlance – it owed me nothing. Too many parts were shot to consider a rebuild, so I bought a new planer.

The new planer was very well-reviewed online and in woodworking magazines. It had several new features that promised to make my woodworking experience incredible. Over about three years, those new features made my woodworking experience incredibly miserable. Last fall, I sat down to weep over some locally cut pine stock that looked ruined by the great planer. I called someone up who loved all the widgets and told him he could pick this up on Wednesday morning before the trash got picked up for a reasonable price; free. I just wanted it off my property and out of my shop. The unique features just never worked for me and seemed to get in my way. Critically, they were not optional.

The new planer is a Hitachi, powerful, simple. No doodads to get in the way.

A big part of why most of us work in wood is the sheer pleasure that comes from just doing it. Keep it simple – “Facile Bonum Est.”

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