15 Years of Galoototron

With a decade and a half on this blog’s odometer, I got to wondering if I really have any more of a clue now than I did 15 years ago. Recall that I started this blog when I started woodworking.

Then asked a question that felt odd: How much does having a “clue” actually matter?

And how do we define “clue?” Through some way or another, I have managed to build a bunch of stuff for the house. It gets done, but I’m not very quick at it. By contrast, many of the publications that we read about woodworking are written by or influenced by professionals. It’s natural, when reading Nancy Hiller’s work, to feel a bit discouraged when she writes of the pace that keeps her business going.

But I thought of something: Hey, wait, I’m a hobbyist woodworker. This is not my day job. I don’t want it to be.

Perhaps there are advantages to that. Maybe there are more options available and there isn’t much point to emulating a professional if it makes no sense. Sure, you want your dovetails to fit and everything, but here’s something to ponder: You actually have the option to do hand-cut dovetails on your own work; you can make those mortise-and-tenon joints the way you want to. A professional may not have these options if the budget does not suit the project.

Traditional nailed dovetail joinery. Hey, those fancy cut nails really are better.

And if you screw up, you can always just go back to the drawing board.

Then there are techniques and equipment. Professionals almost universally use jointer machines to flatten their boards. They have to in order to survive. But I used hand planes for years; I didn’t have the space for any machines at first. Then I took my time and designed a planer sled that might actually be worthwhile. Though I don’t think the sled is particularly suited for the professional (except for wider stock, maybe), it’s been great for me, the hobbyist. I have different constraints: I want to keep the size and number of machines in my shop to a (bare) minimum, I’d like something a bit safer than a jointer, and I don’t mind a minute or two extra setup time.

This does not, however, mean that you need to be a Frank Sinatra. We’re fortunate to have a lot of good instructional material that shows plenty of traditional and “contemporary” ways of doing stuff. Deviating wildly from standard practice might not yield the results that you want.

Or be a Frank Sinatra if you like; it won’t make any difference to me unless you show up on my doorstep and start crooning.

Being Shopless and “The Lifestyle Question”

A related advantage to being a hobbyist is that you can put it down if necessary, or if you just want to take a break. Before moving to my current digs, I spent a few years in places that had inadequate or otherwise nonexistent shop space (yes, even worse than the apartment in San Francisco). To tell the truth, I wasn’t thinking much about woodworking then. I knew that I couldn’t set up my shop, so my mind moved to other things, such as bicycling.

But the woodworking experience, being able to make my own stuff, did change my perspective on certain lifestyle choices. During one of these shopless times, I wasn’t able to find a cycling cap that fit me correctly. I started to wonder if I could make my own, and, well, it turns out that you can. I decided see if I could learn to sew, because SHMBO had a sewing machine that she’d never even opened the box of.

And boom, just like that, I was off on another crazy craft before I knew it. But I digress.

OK, So, Do I Have More of a Clue Now?

I think it’s safe to say that I’ve learned a thing or two about woodworking in the past 15 years. Really, maybe just one or two things. I still consider myself fairly clueless, and there’s a fairly simple reason. I don’t talk about it much here, but I am a victim of grad school. One thing you learn there (at least if you’re paying attention, which admittedly has never been my strong suit) is how much you don’t know. Even in a field as new as computer science, the amount of related knowledge is so vast that it boggles the mind.

That the old-timers were so strong that they could bore with a brace all day long, this boggles the mind.

It seems that every day, I learn about some kind of woodworking that I’ve never touched, such as the crazy Hakone yosegi-zaiku marquetry, and that I’ll likely never get to try. I don’t know what to make of this.

About Those Videos

I have a few videos out now. I made the first one because I had to teach something (unrelated to woodworking) and wanted to practice presentation after nearly two decades of hiding. The second came along because I wanted a way to share the planer sled design outside of this blog. The most recent… eh, I dunno, I just had the idea, wrote it up, and made it.

This is likely not going to become much of a habit. Videos are extremely time-consuming to produce, and offer little in return. I don’t currently make anything from them, and even if I did manage to get enough subscribers to monetize, it wouldn’t generate much. I’m not a performer, no Roy Underhill, no Nick Offerman. At best, words stumble off my tongue and litter the floor. I could probably train it, but I probably don’t want to. And that is OK.

Handplane techniques video test shot. You gotta put it down on the side; otherwise, it gets dull.

What’s Next?

I have a lot of furniture projects lined up that are in the same spirit of past projects. Part of that means frame-construction pieces, sometimes with drawers. But I’ve also been doing some stuff with staked construction lately. I fuss over these things way too much, but I’ve also gotten a little more confident with it. My end goal in that area is to make stick chairs. I’ve been fascinated with them for a while, how they manage to hold together despite using joints that really ought to be dodgy.

What I eventually want to do with stick chairs is explore the aesthetics a bit more. I came late to this. When I first saw Windsor chairs, I didn’t like them much. The construction is kind of neat, but there’s just something about the lines (and excess ornamentation) that I have never cared for. I never saw a Welsh stick chair until popularized by a C.S., though, and I have to admit that seeing those really changed my mind about stick chairs. I’m not sure if I’m a huge fan of the way that most of those look, but there’s a flexibility there that makes me think that it’s worth a shot.

And that about sums it up, until I change my mind again.

Surprise Video: Restoring a Saw

So I’ve been working on a secret project. I’m done and can now share it. It’s my first video, where I restore a saw:

It’s action-packed, of course: Rust removal, refinishing, saw sharpening, cutting dovetails, and macro photography. Could you ask for more? (Other than some real action…)

If nothing else, you get to see a saw that isn’t terribly common. And features a really grotty medallion:

Marking Knife Update

Years ago (seven, it seems, according to this post), I bought a little knife in Japan that I decided that I’d try out as a marking knife. I haven’t really said anything about it since.

It turns out that I haven’t even thought about it very much either, even with the couple odd years when I wasn’t doing much in the shop. But since I picked it up, it’s been the marking knife I almost exclusively reach for, and I also use it to sharpen the odd pencil here and there when nothing else is handy.

I also don’t even recall when I last sharpened it. I don’t even know if I ever did sharpen it, come to think of it. That’s never a good sign. But the other day when I was cutting some dovetails in some white pine (as part of a secret new project), I thought, “Huh. This thing could stand to be sharper.” Softer woods tend to elicit that sort of thinking. So I took it over to the stones and did that, unfortunately with a few minor blood sacrifices. (Wear rubber thimbles or something next time, dummy.)

This looks a little wacky because I sharpened it with two bevels: A main one, then a smaller one near the tip to make it easier to touch up. Like many Japanese blades, this is laminated, with white steel making up the cutting edge. And it can be a pain to sharpen that stuff.

Also typical is the hollowed back:

The hollow wasn’t terribly well-done. Using a diamond stone that I also coincidentally got on the same trip to Japan, I got that evened out pretty quickly. Yay for hollow backs.

Well, I should have probably sharpened this thing a long time ago. I do, however, have to be a little careful now when marking stuff, because the length of the blade makes it too easy to brush up against a finger or something when running along the side of a square.

So, that aside, this is not a purpose-made marking knife, but rather, a “craft knife,” according to the package:

(Aside: KRAFT KNIFE… POWERMESSER!) According to the helpful use suggestions on the left side, it’s for “wood carving,” “bamboo (something) work,” and “DIY.” Though I have to admit that the rear of the packaging card is a lot more useful than the stuff you get with a lot of products these days. For example, it has a “how to sharpen” blurb.

I don’t know who made it, other than it is made in Japan. It’s marketed and distributed by the Ito company in Miki (三木市) , which sometimes uses the “Bigman” moniker (search for “bigman HK-60” and you’ll find this knife at several retailers). Sadly, they do not carry a “She-Ra” line.

I don’t even remember where I bought it. Was it a home center? Tokyu Hands? Huh. In any case, I think it cost somewhere around 2000 JPY. That’s not dirt cheap, but it’s not exactly expensive, either.

And this has me thinking–Lee Valley sells a Japanese marking knife that’s a spear-point thing (in addition to one that looks like mine without a handle). Like my knife, it’s laminated white steel with a hollow back, and is currently $21. Maybe I’d also like that? I’m not sure what to think of the traditional form without a handle.

Or maybe I need to stop thinking and just remember to sharpen the knife.

Old Posts Restored

During the past couple of weeks, I restored the old blog posts that have been missing for the past year or so. I won’t go into technical details, but it was a mostly unpleasant process. All comments from sometime or other in 2010 did not make the transition. Unfortunately (and unusually), this is a shame because there was some really good feedback.

Thanks to the Internet Archive for helping me patch up a number of holes where I had no backups.

I have the original versions of all photos. Many of the old photos are kind of dim due to that being a somewhat transitional period between CRTs and panel displays, and they are pretty low-resolution due to the limitations on storage at the time. If anyone wants me to brighten up and expand the resolution of a particular image, let me know.

As part of the process, I reviewed every post. I confess to making some minor edits for typos and such. Making it a little interesting is that I started the blog at the exact same time that I started woodworking; I had no hands-on experience until even a few posts in. So I saw myself learning again. (And then, there were those posts that I read and thought, “oh, that’s how I did that…”)

Enough navel-gazing. Here’s what we’re looking at right now:

Workbenches and Workholding

When you hear Schwarz or someone harping about how a workbench is a three-dimensional clamping surface, you might wonder why they’re so religious about it. One of the big “rules” is that you should have the front legs flush with the benchtop.

Although I am fond of the idea of rule-breaking, they’re often around for a reason. And here’s why this one is a decent ruleguideline:

That just wouldn’t have been possible without this configuration. It made a really unwieldy task (trimming off the edges of the coffee table top) to a very manageable one with just a handsaw.

So it’s not so much religion, more of an admonishment to prevent you from shooting yourself in the foot in the name of form over function.

More workbench stuff is coming soon. Maybe.

Done With The Outdoor Work

I finally finished all of the deck and porch work that was monopolizing my shop and shop time. Railings, deck boards, trim, and so on–it just never seemed to end. The last bit was making these balusters for the front porch:

Full disclosure: Electrons were shoved around in the making of these. I should write something about that sometime. However, I did cut each board to length by hand, and I finished off the little concave interior curves with a rasp (It was the fastest tool for the job).

Now I can get back to work on that coffee table.

Too Much 45

It hasn’t been a great month for work on furniture, mostly because I’ve been working on repairing the deck on my house.

Part of this has involved making new tops for railings, which involved beading and cutting grooves. And this is what you end up with at the end of that last process:

Oh, that Stanley #45. Every time I use it, I feel like I want a tool that is lighter and less finicky to set up.

Finished: My Worst Project

I’m not even sure if I want to post this, but here goes. I just finished a breadbox, which qualifies as the worst woodworking project I’ve ever done. Wonder why? There are lots of reasons, but let’s just get a photo out of the way first:

This project has been languishing for years. How long? I don’t even know anymore. There was a reference to it in a post many years back, three moves ago, probably saying that this was taking an embarrassingly long time. That was at least a few years ago. (I also found a photo from five years ago showing the door frame being made.) The reasons for delay? All obnoxiously stupid:

  • Couldn’t decide how to do the door
  • Couldn’t decide how to seal and stop the area around the door
  • Couldn’t be bothered to find decent hinges
  • Couldn’t decide on the handle
  • Couldn’t decide what kind of clasp hardware to use
  • Couldn’t be bothered to order the clasp hardware
  • Didn’t remember that I actually ordered the clasp hardware, then spent a year or two absentmindedly trying to decide on the clasp hardware (again)
  • Didn’t want to finish it
  • Didn’t remember that it needed to be finished
  • Any and all other methods of procrastination

That all sounds bad enough, but there are even more reasons. The best I can say is that I made the box and the door very quickly.

And then there’s the quality of work. It’s not great. It looks OK from a distance. Maybe just don’t look too closely. I don’t want to go into the details, but let’s just say that I wasn’t particularly careful here. I can only conclude that I just wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about this albatross of a project.

Despite all of this, it’s better that it’s done and now in service. This was an incredibly irritating monkey on my back.

Oh, I guess there are technical details: Beech, half-blind dovetails for the carcase, mortise-and-tenons for the door, floating panels on the door and rear of the carcase.

Here it is, open (I didn’t even remember to use the same exposure on both pictures, and nope, I’m not gonna go back and redo it):

Let’s Talk About Wood Selection and Orientation

This might seem like an obvious topic, but I don’t know if I’ve ever discussed it. To be clear, I’m not really talking about species selection here. It’s more a matter of the individual boards that you incorporate into a project and where they end up.

Wood selection might not stand out as one of the most compelling reasons to bother to learn woodworking, but it’s at least an implicit reason. If you’ve ever seen one of those kitchens with the cherry cabinets that were popular about 10-15 years ago, you know what I mean. These typically don’t have any rhyme, reason, or consistency to the boards making up the frames and panels; they often look like they were made up of many different species. It’s the same way with a lot of more expensive factory-made furniture as well. Well, if that doesn’t drive you nuts, the pocket joints will.

So this relates especially to my current project, the coffee table, which has a frame made of walnut. Like cherry, walnut has a high degree of variability between trees, boards from a tree, and often even within a single board. To try to get everything as consistent as possible, I always try to group pieces according to location and function, then map those groups to boards. The fewer boards, the better. Then you start working on the puzzle of where everything fits. Here’s where I’m at on the frame:

There are two stretchers per side between the legs, and they are paired (bottom layer) in this photo. Between those stretchers will be two inner frame pieces. The boards on the top layer of the photo will each be cut in two make those pieces. The pair on the top will go with the board on the right, the next down is second from right, and so on.

All of these pieces came from the same board, which made it a little simpler in some respects.

If you look closely, you’ll see that the grain orientation (top side in the photo) of each pair matches, with the rear pair being quartersawn, the next one mostly quartersawn, and the front pairs flatsawn. These are chosen to match the legs. Recall this photo from the last post:

That leg is the trickiest part of the arrangement because it’s riftsawn. But it mostly resembles flatsawn on the left and quartersawn on the right, and the legs on the other ends are definitely in that orientation, so the pairs of stretchers are chosen accordingly. (The other legs are much more straightforward in orientation and have obvious matches.)

In any case, the flatsawn sides oppose each other, as do the quartersawn, making it easier to arrange the legs. And the oddball above is going in the “rear” of the table to keep it mostly out of sight anyway.

Let’s take a closer look at some of those stretcher pairings, starting with the quartersawn:

And now the flatsawn:

If you look even closer at this one (and the pairing in the post’s first photo), you’ll notice that the horizontal stretchers were cut not only from the same board, but right next to each other. This might seem a little crazy because the upper ones won’t even be really all that visible (the top will overhang, obscuring them), but it’s the kind of thing that I like to be in the habit of doing.

So I guess I spend a lot of time thinking about this kind of stuff. It might even be worth it.