Saturday 31 January 2009

Hand Saw Massacre

I had the distinct pleasure today of having to cut up some 3/4-inch birch plywood by hand. Ok, it was really neither distinct, nor a pleasure, but I did it.

Over the years I have used a number of different computer desks, a few purchased, a couple I built myself and one that was make-shift (on the boat I took over the dinette). A few years ago I finally got down to building what I thought was the perfect unit. Twelve feet long, the whole thing rested on three bases. At one end I built a two-drawer file cabinet and at the other, a two-door cabinet for stashing the printers, a scanner and the like. The center unit holds my hard drives; one Mac and one PC, both resting on a pad that rides on full extension slides. The base is 28” from floor to desktop, which I find perfect for keyboard and mouse use. At either end, bookcases run to the ceiling. The whole thing was built out of 3/4” birch ply and stained a deep walnut with a few coats of satin varnish (spar for the top). It looked like a million bucks, give or take for inflation. After throwing in a good pair of 5:1 speakers, I had the perfect set-up.

I spend half my life at that desk. When the decision was made that we were moving (one day my wife will explain to me how “we” came to that decision), there was no question the station was coming with me. Once the burly men with the strong backs had dumped all our possessions in our new abode, unceremoniously I might add, a glitch reared its ugly head. My beautifully designed 12-foot long computer station now had to fit into a 9-foot wide room.

It took me about 24 hours to finally come up with a solution. The only solution was to turn the straight run station into an L-shaped one. That part was easy, it was deciding which unit to put where that was the problem as I had to have space for the office chairs to slide in and out from under it without banging on either side each time. Surprisingly, the bases of those chairs are wider than my butt – who knew? I played with scale models digitally, moved, switched and tweaked the real life ones around and mucked with the figures on paper. It took a while, but I finally hit on what I thought would be the ideal arrangement.

Once the configuration was confirmed and the bases set into place, I was ready to install the tops. The originals were 28-inches wide and were flush with the face of the base cabinets. This was my only flaw, more because of aesthetics rather than serviceability. Because of that, I decided to replace the tops with wider units, going for a width of 29-inches. Ok, I’ll admit it; I’m anal about these things. Anyway, the tops were easy once I found a Home Depot that had their panel saw working.

With the tops installed, stained and with a few coats of water-based varnish (horrible stuff), I was left with two 6-foot pieces of ply that was already finished on one side. As my book and text collection has grown leaps and bounds these past few years I thought it would be prudent, environmentally friendly and just plain convenient to cut these pieces up into 10-inch strips to use as book shelves. Glitch number two.

To thicken the edges of the tops and make them more rigid, I had glued and screwed three 3-inch strips of ply to the underside of each piece; one down each edge and the third down the middle. You know what happens when you try to separate glued plywood lay-ups – they take a layer of ply along with them and that is exactly what happened.

The result of all of this was that after an hour and twenty minutes of pumping my Disston #12 Cross up and down, I ended up with my four 6’ long pieces of shelving. I had to hand cut 48-feet of 3/4-inch play to get them, each shelf requiring two cuts, salvaging the undamaged sections between where the removed lay-ups left their scars. Over the course of this exercise, as the aches grew more intense and the sweat more earnest, I kept thinking, “God, how did these guys build whole houses using these things?”

They are now off in the corner drying after having their undersides stained and shellaced. Tomorrow, I’ll give them a couple of coats of varnish (the real stuff if I can find it) and by Sunday, I should be able to unpack the remaining six boxes of books that are currently pilled in the hall outside my office door. It will be a treat to be able to walk out of the room without walking into a wall of cardboard.

Whose idea was it to do this hand tool thing, anyhow?



Thursday 1 January 2009

Its a New Year...

You know, Blog Providers should be forced to post a warning on the pages they use to entice you to start your own blog. Those warnings should have similar wording to: “Your life, if you have one, will get in the way of conscientiously maintaining your blog if you choose to post one!”

Posting a blog is great fun, educational, and a blast interacting with others who enjoy your same interests. As stated in that warning, though, life has a habit of elbowing in on your fun and as a result, you end up with another thing to nag you in the back of your mind – your way behind in your plans for posts.

I started out planning to create the next designer textbook regarding furniture design a short six weeks ago. The research I completed so far filled up a bookmark folder so badly; I had to add sub-folders to it to keep it somewhat organized so I could find things. It also lead me to Amazon, Google Books and a few of my local bookstores to gain even more knowledge on the subject and I have the stack of books with the word “design” in each of their titles piled up by my computer to prove it. I had all of these great plans and ideas, and then it happened. Life came crashing down around me.


As I have mentioned previously, I’m moving this month. I have tried desperately in the past to avoid having to move but it is now unavoidable. While moving is a royal pain, it is not the aggravation of moving that I have tried to avoid, but the painful realization that I have been forced to face every time I have had to go through this nonsense in the past. Every time I move I have to face the fact that I’m a junkie. Oh not just any old junkie, but a finely honed, finely tuned junkie. If there is a history book, a tool, a computer thingamajig, or any related item to these things, damned if I haven’t bought it. Each and every time I have moved in the past this realization rears its ugly head and bites me on the ass.

Now a normal person, facing this reality upon past moves, would realize this malady for what it is and do something about it. In all probability, this action would involve making a conscious effort not to buy any more junk. I, on the other hand, thought I had found a better way of dealing with it, a more effective and acceptable way of beating this all consuming albatross that hangs over my head down to the ground – I’ll just not move any more. To me, it was the perfect response.

Come on; let’s face it, we all do it. We see a little tool on eBay or at the local flea market and without thought; we reach into our pockets so we can take it home. While we appreciate that little tool for what it is, it is rare that we really need it so it ends up stuffed away in some drawer or cupboard. From that point on, we appreciate and admire that little tool every time we stumble upon it, which, over time, becomes less and less frequent as the drawer or cupboard becomes filled with other unneeded items and in time we start to avoid that particular cupboard or drawer all together, having found a new and empty one that we can fill.

By moving, we are forced to face our addiction. We are forced to take all those admired little bits of unneeded wealth and stuff them into a box so strangers with stronger backs than I can come and haul them off to our next home. Why? Because we accumulated so much stuff in our current homes that there isn’t enough room to store them all so we are forced to get larger accommodations so we have more room for more cupboards and drawers so not only do we have space to store our past accumulations, but room to store our future purchases as well.

This was the Achilles Heel to my plan to overcome my addiction. Like any woodworker setting up a new shop, I didn’t take into account the need for future space. I figured if I stowed away my little purchases in an organized manner I would have enough room to last me a lifetime. If I had enough room, I wouldn’t need to move. If I didn’t move, I wouldn’t have to face my addiction. Little did I know the power that it held over me.

Faced with the necessity of moving to larger abodes, my wife, in her usual confident and justified manner, told me – “Your junk – your responsibility”. Hence my plans for writing the next “necessity for every furniture designer” ended up in its raw form as a pile of research stacked beside and within my computer station.

On top of the move, I have acquired yet another full time obsession. I’m not talking woodworking here, as that is just an all-encompassing need, different than an obsession - a good obsession if you will. I’m talking about my part-time job as a teacher. Teaching digital design involves teaching about the Internet and the different design programs that allow designers the ability to make things happen that were near to impossible before the advent of the digital age. The problem with it all is that it changes faster than any mere mortal can keep up with. What I taught last year as the standard for web structure is now outdated and unused in the up-to-date industry. Many of the programs within my repertoire have all had new releases and now they are bigger, better and faster, and involve not only an updating on how to use them, but a complete reevaluation as to what to use them for.

My greatest nightmare has always been that I would someday face a class of students that have more knowledge than I. Towards the end of last term I started to get the tickle of a feeling that this nightmare is not too far off becoming a reality. As a result of this revelation, when not stuffing the results of my addiction into boxes, I have been researching and teaching myself some cutting edge technology. If I keep at it, I might understand it enough to be able to teach it sometime soon, which should just about parallel the time that all this new stuff becomes obsolete and I'll be able to start all over again with what replaces it.

It is hard to believe that the Internet, as we know it, is turning the ripe old age of twenty this year. Shocking, isn’t it, to think that this thing that we accepted so quickly started its public life in 1989. I have socks that are older than this technology. To give you some idea of its power, did you know that it took the radio thirty-eight years to reach an audience of 50 million, it took television thirteen years to reach that same market, but it only took the internet four. Even the English language hasn’t been immune to exponential growth caused by the Information Revolution. Our language now totals approximately 540,000 words, but that is five times as many as Shakespeare had to work with during his time on the planet. Who makes them up I have no idea.

I often think of the irony that defines my use of this new technology. While I teach it and use it to communicate with my students and to assist them with their studies, the main source of pleasure that I derive from it is to use it to learn about tools and processes used in woodworking long before the Information Highway was even a glimmer in Dr. Vinton Cerf’s eye (Doctor Cerf has been credited by many as being the father of the internet). Here I am, smack dab in the middle of the Technological Revolution and really, all I am using it for is to learn about things that became standards in woodworking as a result of the last major transition in mankind’s evolution, that one named the Industrial Revolution. Now that is irony in its purest form.

Thankfully, we have this technology at our disposal now. I would hate to think what my mornings would be like without it. To return to a paper newspaper would be pure drudgery to me, and to have to limit myself to one or two would be worse. Even though I haven’t had the time to maintain and post my own blog, it doesn’t mean I have been remiss in keeping up with the others that I enjoy so much. Visiting them to see what they have to add to my ever-increasing understanding of woodworking is also part of my morning ritual and to loose that would be mortifying. Other than my newspapers, I have three sites that are as much a part of my morning ritual as my morning cigarette and diet coke are. 

(Yes, I know what you are thinking, but if you have never been able to acquire a taste for coffee you have to get your morning caffeine kick somehow. As for the smoke, leave me alone. I’m old and started smoking back in the days when smoking was cool, hell, back in the days when saying “cool” was cool. There is no excuse for continuing except for the rational reasoning behind burning up all that money each and every day. If I didn’t buy cigarettes I’d have a hell of a lot more money to go off and feed my other addictions and the fact of the matter is, I don’t have to store the cigarettes.)

All right, enough with my dirty habits and back to my morning ritual. The three sites I couldn’t live without?, The Village Carpenter and Full Chisel Blog. It would be arrogance beyond reason to think that whoever is reading this found me and not those other three blogs that I believe to be the standards for comparison, but I will mention them anyway in case the impossible has happened. has produced some of the most informative documentaries on woodworking that I have ever seen on the web. I also believe the quality of Keith’s work is far and above anything else available. Having had some experience in video production, I can sum up for you in one sentence what Keith does for us. Here you have one guy who fills his van with equipment, hauls it all over the countryside, spends hours setting up and lighting a set, spends even more hours filming, and when the shoot is all over, he hauls everything home only to spend a few more days sitting in front of an editing suite and then fights to post it all on his web site with the best in technology to ensure it is displayed properly. He does all of this for nothing more than to allow me a vehicle to learn a little more about woodworking. Ya gotta’ take your hat off to someone like that and I hope you guys who visit his site appreciate the work he has done in the back end to give it to you. Having communicated with the man a few times I believe him to be nothing short of brilliant as something most do not realize, all this expertise Keith displays is self-taught, and to me, that is amazingly impressive. I have another thought about Keith, so I’ll return to him in a minute.

The Village Carpenter is next in line and is an absolute joy to read. I’m not sure why, but I have a definite feeling about Kari that is not based on anything I have read specifically in her blog. She has informative posts regarding the different processes in woodworking that she explains so well and others where she brings some place in her world that I never knew existed before to my computer screen. Enjoyable as her posts are, the most important thing that I get out of her blog is Kari herself. She projects through as being one of those rare examples of what a good human being is all about. Reading her blog sort of makes me want to emulate that feeling throughout the rest of my day. Hey, I’m not saying I’m successful, I’m just saying that The Village Carpenter is a good way to start your day.

Finally, there is the Full Chisel Blog. Stephen’s unpretentious posts are nothing more than pure talent displayed through the unselfish sharing of information. As with Kari, I have never met Stephen nor exchanged more than a few words with either of them through the comment sections of their blogs, yet, just like Kari, Stephen projects a quality of human being that we all find so rare these days – a good one. I’m not sure I agree with his choice of glues, but I do think he is an asset to all of us, woodworkers included.

Oh ya, back to Keith. For those who have watched his documentaries, you have seen his shot of what I call, “The Famous Bench”. For those that haven’t had the pleasure yet, at the end of each intro Keith fades out displaying a vice at the end of a bench that is constructed with one of the best shots of a dovetail, not to mention one of the best and largest dovetails, you will ever see. As it turns out, Keith built that bench and for some reason, has never highlighted it in any of his posts other than this one ongoing shot. It is my belief that you should click on this link,, and complete the form demanding that Keith show us his bench in a full and unabashed display. Tell him Mitchell made you do it.

So there you go. In one post I have explained to you why I haven’t been able to keep up with past short-term plans for my blog, laid out for you my one major addiction, confessed to you all my dirty habits, told you how and why I start my day and alienated a good online friend in the process (be nice in those emails to Keith). In all, it would seem to be a productive day, don't you think?

To be serious for a moment, though, if that is at all possible for me, I would truly like to thank all of you that took the time and made the effort to post a comment or send me off an email to me that is related to this site. I haven't been posting long which makes the number of communications I have received that much more surprising. We are all human living in a world that seems to be less welcoming by the day. When someone actually takes the time to wish you well in one of your endevours, or steers you in the correct or better direction, it just makes you feel better, not only about yourself, but about mankind in general. To all of you that have spent some time reading what I have to say, thank you for letting me be a part of your day, however short, and I hope you gained something from it, however small.

So where am I headed in this New Year? I have no idea. I will keep blogging, I'm just not sure about what. I do know I have to finish off that tool cabinet but before I do that, I'm faced with building a computer station for our new kitchen. I already have some ideas for it which, of course, I will share with you starting the end of the month. I think you may find them interesting.

With that, I’ll sign off by wishing you all a very healthy, happy and prosperous New Year, and as my heading states, quoted from an old Irish New Years toast, “May this New Year find your hand always out in friendship, never in want”.

As usual…