Thursday 30 June 2011

Pssst....Wanna' Watch A Dirty Movie... maybe the term "dirty" overshoots the mark a bit. How about "dusty"...

Tuesday 21 June 2011

If Mohammad can’t go to the mountain, then the mountain will have to come to him…

After considering my wife’s change in position regarding our plans for moving out of the city and the loss of my planned workshop wherever that move would take us, I have come to some decisions regarding the direction I should take.

No, I’m not going to leave her.

What I am going to do is build a compact shop set-up for my specific needs that is based on a sort of modular design. If I am forced to stay here, it will work, and if we do end up moving to a more accommodating location, I can add to it as desired. If I am nothing, I am at least adaptable – possibly delusional – but definitely adaptable.

Ok, here’s the deal. We live on the 26th floor of a high-rise condominium. We own everything from the plaster on the boundary walls in. While we can do modifications to the unit, they are limited. As moving is something my wife will not consider at this point, I am stuck with an area that is 9-feet by 12-feet with regular 8-foot ceilings. Within 108 square feet I have to operate my digital design business, deal with my teaching duties, store and display my ever-growing research library and have a usable workshop that has the facilities to store my ever-growing hand tool collection.

The only way to do all of this is to dedicate one wall to the workshop and one wall to the commercial operation that pays for that workshop.

Having done so much research lately on workbenches, this didn’t turn out to be the challenging task I thought it would be. Sequestered away in my 108 square foot domain for the weekend, this is what I came up with…

The minute my current project, the large plant shelf unit, is done, I am going on a shopping spree for a great deal of mahogany and this drawing will slowly become my centre for working wood.

Here is a layout with the basic dimensions...

The design is based on two drawer cabinets with three drawers each; two large drawers, one to be my saw till with the other accommodating larger items like my mitre jack, two medium sized drawers to hold my metal and wood plane collection and two smaller ones to hold my drills and other assorted mid-sized items.

Each of these cabinets has an overhead storage unit attached by a steel frame. These units have very shallow drawers, a number of smaller ones to hold small tools, a few midsized ones to hold files and other similar sized tools and two shallow hanging lockers with tambour doors.

In between the two storage areas lays a 7 ½ - foot bench with a tail vise at one end and a face vise of my own design at the other. A deadman sits between the two base cabinets for use with the face vise. Because floor space is at such a premium, the face vise cannot project out as far as a normal one, so the outer plate is set into the bench top with only the screw wheel projecting. When a longer board is being worked, a filler will have to be added behind it to bring it forward beyond the bench’s face.

As storage of additional jigs and things is also limited, as many adjustments as possible have to be built into the bench. One of those adjustments will be for height. Charlie, over at has done some extensive work utilizing a car jack for this purpose and studying the plans I purchased from him, I am sure I can utilize this set-up to create a 10-inch height adjustment into my design.

I am also going to skirt the base cabinets to minimize the dust collecting underneath them. Because the room is full of computers as well, dust control is a big deal for me so I have also designed the same car jack set-up in their bases as I’ll be using for the bench top. These bases, however, will have the two car jacks connected so they raise and lower as a single unit to limit twisting the top. When employed, casters in each base will drop down to allow the whole assembly to be moved for relocation or just cleaning beneath.

If things change in our accommodations and we end up somewhere that offers more floor space, the bench top can be removed and set up independently, the two base cabinets can be stacked on one base and the two overhead storage units can be mounted to the wall in any one of multiple arrangements.

Overall, I think the workstation that will result from these plans will be functional to work at and esthetically pleasing to look at. The results will also be usable at this location, or adaptable if my wife decides working for a living is something she would finally like to forgo.

Either way, Mohammad ends up with his mountain.



Friday 17 June 2011

For Better or For Worse...

These past few months, whenever a few minutes of break time is due, I have been merrily using it to search out any interesting books I can find on the topic of woodworking benches. I have also done more than one all-nighter, surfing the web for posts by other woodworkers regarding their trials and troubles creating their benches, their joys and  disappointments with their resulting benches and their hopes and dreams for their future benches.

From all this research, here are my top-ten unscientifically defined conclusions about woodworkers and their workshop benches…
1. It appears to me that more than half of you out there have each built more than 100 benches in your lifetimes; 99 of them were built in your head…plus the one you actually built in the basement.
2. The vast majority of woodworks spend three to five years thinking about building a workbench, two to three years assembling the materials to build their workbenches, and six months to a year staring at all that stuff piled in the middle of the basement floor, all the while convincing yourselves that you shouldn’t rush these things.
3. You know the woodworkers who changed their bench designs right after purchasing the building materials for their first designs from their listings on eBay; they are the ones with the descriptions that always start with; "Bench place your bench part here - New - Still in the box..." 
4. Once the build has started, the average workbench usually takes about 73.832 days, 892.37 dollars and 192 bottles of beer to complete.
5. Many of you learned a good lesson in design whilst trying to decide which end of the bench to add the detailed mounting of the bottle opener, overcoming the possible bad choice by adding these complicated mounts at both ends.
6. Although mainly kept a secret, many a proud workbench builder has been seen dragged complete strangers off the street and forcing them down their basement stairs so they can show someone their pride and joy.
7. Once completed, it usually takes anywhere from three to five years for the average woodworker to finally admit that he or she "might" have made a mistake in the design of their bench, however obvious that mistake may be, by-the-way.
8. Once completed, it usually takes anywhere from three to five days for the average woodworker to start dreaming of what he or she will be adding to their next bench-build.
9. Once completed, "Re-flattening the top" is a task most new bench owners look forward to...once.
And finally, the number one conclusion I have come to…(drum roll, please)…
10. Once completed, the average time it takes for your wife to discover your beautifully crafted workshop bench is the perfect place to put clothes for, or from, washday – SEVEN!

And speaking of wives…

I didn't have long before retirement and I can’t tell you how much I was looking forward to it (please note the operative words in this sentence, being "didn't" and “was”).

Damn it, Jim!

My wife came to me last week and asked for some help with her resume.


My reaction was to ask why she wanted to deal with it so close to her retiring? This turned out to be a question I wished I had never asked.

We live in Toronto, Canada, which has a population of over a couple of million, 99% of them miserable sods who could care less about a single living soul other than themselves. Trust me, when I tell you that what you have heard or read about the people from Toronto being the epitome of “proper” behavior is pure poppycock. Most would skin their grandmother for her tattoos if they thought they were worth a buck, or would shave two seconds off of reaching the next stoplight. Needless to say, I have been patiently waiting these past ten years to move away to some small, rural community where I can be left alone to watch grass grow when I’m not working wood.

I have also been very vocal about this plan to my wife; so hearing even an inkling that there may be a problem with it caused me some major concern, to say the least. Sadly, it only got worse as the conversation went along.

Here's the rub. I’m older than my wife. Not by much, mind you, but enough to make a serious spread in ages at the time of retirement.  Way back when, it felt like a good idea to marry a younger woman. As with most good ideas, it has come to eventually bite me on the butt, and has left some serious teeth marks in the process.

A synopsis of the conversation went like this…

"I'm going to be calling it quits."

“You can, but I’m too young to retire.”

“Well I’m not.”

“Well then, retire. Who’s stopping you?”

“I don’t want to retire in Toronto.”

“Well I don’t want to retire which means we can’t leave Toronto.”
Editor's Note: It was around this point were the words that I never, ever dreamed I could even think of, let alone utter, especially to a woman and even more especially to my wife, just fell out of my mouth…
“But…but…but...I want to build boxes…”

And with that, she never said a word. She just turned on her heels and left my office. As I listened to her move down the hall laughing hysterically in a way that reminded me of crazed hyenas, I watched with my mind’s eye as my beloved little house on the prairie went up in flames.



Monday 13 June 2011

Coping Saw Update...

One of my current projects is building a new, custom coping saw for cutting away waste in dovetails. While this project is consistent with all my other working wood projects - slow - it is coming around.

As I do not have a metal lathe, or the facilities to work one if I had one, I had to farm out the job of creating the blade mounts. Last week I received word from the gentleman who is turning them for me that their creation was well underway.

Saturday, I picked up a nice hunk of rosewood from Lee Valley. It is 3-inches by 3-inches by 12-inches, cost me $19.80, has straight grain with no checks, and is coated with wax.

Yesterday, I finished the final design for the frame. It is far from the conventional design for these things, with a tad leaning towards contemporary lines.

I just need to pick up a bandsaw blade for my mini-bandsaw and I'll be off and running with it.




Friday 10 June 2011

What's Your Kid Doing This Weekend...

I have often discussed my old man in this blog, reminiscing about the so-called good old days when father and son were bonding. The reality is, without the time that I spent with him in the shop, I really wouldn’t have much to write about when it comes to him.

I have always worked bizarre hours and when my kid was around, it wasn’t any different. After a few weeks of 20-hour days and seven day work weeks I would take an afternoon off and work in the shop. I did the same thing when I rebuilt my old boat, but then I would head down to the marina and work on it in the yard. When I was spending time working wood, my kid was in school.

Realizing this reality has caused me to admit, once again, that my rough, tough, SOB of a father was much smarter than I. Not adjusting my work load so I could bring my kid into the shop with me was the biggest mistake I ever made in my lifetime, not only for me, but for my kid as well.

From what I have discovered, most of us work wood because we saw our fathers work wood. What makes anyone think that our kids will be any different than us when they get older? While in some cases I hope my kid is smart enough to be different than me, given he has already built a few furniture pieces of his own, when it comes to working wood, I know he will have the same passion for it as I have.

Back in the 50’s, the price of machinery dropped to the point where it was cheap enough for anyone to own. After a lifetime of pushing planes and humping handsaws on the job site, my old man jumped on the power bandwagon and quickly outfitted his shop with every machine available that was relevant to his production. He had a good eye for proportions and a passion for the design style that I call 50’s modern. Everything he built was square, smooth cornered and utilitarian.

One of the first lessons I remembered having was making a box with faux mitered corners. If you don’t know what that is, it is a process of trimming away all but the top layer of plywood, leaving that top lip wide enough to cover the edge of the piece of ply it butted up to, as shown in the illustration below.

This was a pretty delicate operation made more difficult by the size of the board you were adding it to. Starting with the inside cut, he would work the fence out the width of the blade with each pass until just a stubbled sliver of the layers was left along the edge of a board. He would then flip it over on the table saw top and using a chisel, slice away the corduroy surface the blades left, removing the remnants of the edge sliver in the process. When the pieces were doweled and glued up, he would run a block of sandpaper along the edge and without properly inspecting the joint, you would swear it was mitred.

I was reminded, yet again, of my old man’s teachings this morning when I read Chris Schwarz’s post. He was discussing how to explain the workings of a power jointer to his daughter. Say what you will about Chris, but the way he includes his daughters in just about everything he does puts him way up there in my book.

In his post, Chris talked about letting the wood tell you how to work it with a jointer. For me, this, of course, brought up the times when my old man taught me how to use one. He took a different approach, telling me to think like a machine. That sounds a little strange on it’s own, but the reality is, when you are coming up with a design for something mechanical, you follow the process of it in your mind from the machine’s point of view, not the operator’s.

The old man would say, “It’s a multipurpose machine which you are trying to get to do a specific job. Think of what you would have to add to this machine if you were producing it for this specific job”.

Going at that machine this way with each specific job, I soon learned how to master it. Whatever the job, I would envision a specifically styled pressure plate and feed mechanism and where it would be mounted over the blades. This would quickly give me a rough idea where to apply pressure to the stock and at what speed I should feed it. Within a pass or two, I would understand where it would need finessing, adjust the pressure or speed accordingly and I would usually have good results. While you could come up with the same conclusions without the thought of adapting the machine to the job at hand, using the adapted machine approach gives your mind's eye a picture to emulate.

I have tried applying that same principle to hand planes, by the way, and it doesn’t work worth a damn.

I believe life is a circle, and the topic of my family members working wood is no different. After getting out of the army in 46’, my old man taught himself how to use hand tools so he could earn a living. He then switched to power tools and taught himself how to use them all over again. He did, however, have the brains and the heart to pass that knowledge down to me. I wasn’t as smart as my old man way back when, and didn’t share that knowledge with my own kid. Now he lives 3000 miles away from me, so I can’t share with him the things I have learned about working with hand tools. Whichever he uses; power or hand tools, my son will be just like his grandfather, and have to learn their use on his own.

Guys, if you can, get your kids into the shop with you as often as you can. It will be a memory they will carry with them for a lifetime and beyond.



Sunday 5 June 2011

Nothing Stands Without A Solid Base...So...

I finished this part for my wife’s plant shelf unit about a month ago. I shot a few photos of it, got distracted by other topics and then forgot about it until today. With what this piece put me through to produce it, I can't say I'm surprised that I forgot about it so quickly.

It is a rolling base for the shelving unit, made, hopefully, to take the weight. Made out of off-the-shelf 1 x 6 poplar, dovetailed at the corners and (help me with this guys) through tenons for the cross braces (are these type of things called through tenons?).

I didn’t want the large-wheeled casters to show, so this frame allowed me to set them high and skirt them, allowing the space between the bottom of the unit and the floor to be only ¾ of an inch. I could have probably pieced it together with less wood, but I doubt it would be as strong.

I learned a few things while building this base but the one that stands out the most is; chiseling dovetails and through mortises in softwood is a bigger pain in the butt than it is doing the same with hardwood. Both the chisels, and the chisel operator, have to be extra sharp.

I finished one of the sides some time ago and finished scrapping the second one on Friday. It got coated with grain filler yesterday, which I hope to sand tomorrow. When it is completed, the assembly of the basic structure can take place, which should happen in a week or two – thank God!

It will not…I assure you…be soon enough.



Friday 3 June 2011

Class; A Rare Commodity These Days...

Because my cynical view sees a world full of ScrewYouJackIGotMine type of people, when someone shows some true class, they stand out to me. Sadly, for whatever reason, true class is a rare commodity these days and because it is so rare, when it rears its beautiful head, I think it should be noted.

Take for example, Kari Hultman, over on The Village Carpenter. Now there is class personified. Like thousands of others, I have been following Kari’s progress for about four years now. The advances she has made with her abilities to work wood over these few years has been amazing, but the fact that she has taken the time to document every step of it and shared them all with us is nothing short of astounding. How she was able to keep that process up for the five years she did is beyond my abilities to comprehend. Blogging about one narrow segment of your life and interests isn’t an easy task, to put it mildly, yet for all those years she did so, on average, more than once a week, with each post holding a wealth of information. She has slowed a bit for now, and I can’t blame her. If anyone has earned some time away from the keyboard, it would be Kari. True class.

Another example is Stephen Shepherd over on Full Chisel. To quote my first blog post, back in October of 2008, I stated that Stephen “is as "earthy" as you can get”, and I still truly believe that. Because of his unpretentious ways, I think many fail to comprehend how much knowledge Stephen has been able to share with the world when it comes to historical processes. You might not be dropping any garlic in your linseed oil to boil it any time soon, but the fact that he has brought this long-forgotten process back from the dead is just one example of how he has devoted his time to these time-honoured processes. A few years ago I was always surprised to see his name associated with an article written by one scholar or another about the historic ways of working wood. Now I have come to understand that this seemingly quiet, gentle man is actually an internationally known scholar on the subject himself, and is recognized as such by some of the leading conservators of historical furniture around the world. The fact that I had to learn this from sources everywhere else but Stephen's own blog, shows me just how much true class this man really has.

The topic for this post came to me last week in the form of a marketing email, the latest edition of Lee Valley’s Woodworking Newsletter. Lee Valley is probably one of the classiest commercial operations that I have ever encountered. To me, this company is the epitome of how a business should be run as they operate solely from a customer’s perspective, not from a banker’s or shareholder’s concept. If I need something, and Lee Valley sells it, even if a box store sells it for a few dollars less, I’ll still make the trip to Lee Valley and buy it from them. I do this simply because it is one of the very rare companies out there that deserves my business.

As with all Lee Valley newsletters, the first topic I view is the “From the Collection” entry. In these posts, Doug Orr never ceases to amaze and educate me about all things historical for working wood. In the May edition, this entry not only offered up the usual, it also told me that Doug Orr is one of those rare people with true class.

I would doubt that most of you that follow this blog, and it always amazes me how many do, remember a post I did back in August of 2010 about a saw I had recently purchased from Jim Bode Tools and had retoothed by woodnut on eBay. While most of you won’t remember it, it will always be the one post that will stand out in my brain forever more. It was in that post that I inadvertently insulted one of the world’s leading authorities on historical tools, one Doug Orr. Yup, the Doug Orr I insulted is one in the same as the Doug Orr that writes these entries for the Lee Valley Woodworking Newsletters.

To give you a quick synopsis, I bought this saw from Jim Bode as a large veneer saw. When I posted about it, Stephen Shepherd commented that the saw was actually a trim saw. When Stephen says an old tool is something, I tend to take his word for it, so off I went searching for more information about it. This quest ended up bringing W. Patrick Edwards into the fray. The result of two solid days of research was no additional information other than the fact that Stephen was right, it was a trim saw to use with a mitre jack. In the midst of all of this, a Lee Valley Woodworking Newsletter arrived and in it was an article on the exact same saw. In his post on the saw, Doug Orr gave its probable use as a trim saw for baseboard or moldings when laying flooring, or possibly for doing trims on partially assembled furniture. I also remember something about it being a stair saw.

Being all caught up in the research of this saw and not knowing who Doug Orr was at the time, I gave some pretty unflattering reasons why I didn’t heed his thoughts on the saw. Those comments were so insulting, in fact, I immediately removed them and posted an apology as soon as I realized my Faux Pas.

Mr. Orr, much to his credit, gave some credence to the results of my research and started to do his own. The results of that research is presented in this edition of the newsletter, and yes, he too believes now that the saw is indeed a “Française scie à recaler”, a French trim saw.

Over these past nine months Mr. Orr has been in touch with me numerous times, updating me on his research of this saw, as well as a few other things, so I was prepared to see the results in one of the newsletter posts, but I was expecting it to be delivered in a slightly different manner. When it arrived, I was surprised that I wasn’t singled out as the “ignorant bugger”, “idiot” or “putz” that I so rightly deserved. Instead, he eloquently stated, “…benign saw descriptions can raise the ire of dedicated tool fiends, and that article brought numerous comments from subscribers regarding my description, ranging from complete agreement to adamant rebuttals.” He then went on to discuss the mitre jack of the same style as the one I bought from him at the Tools of the Trade Show last year. At the end, he presented the results of his research on the saw that proves we both were right.

Class act, that Doug Orr.