Essential Tools (to Me), part 1: The Stair Saw

A few years ago, I realized I had stopped acquiring tools. Well, more or less. There are always one or two additional tools on my wish-list, and I pick up a new tool (or replace an inadequate one) every so often. But after spending the last 15+ years learning to work wood primarily with hand tools, I have built up what I have found to be an essential set of tools for doing the kind of things I like/want/need to make.

Everyone’s “essentials” list is different. In this and the next few posts, I want to highlight a few of my own “essential” tools, in no particular order. They may be everyday tools that help me do a wide variety of jobs, or they may be fairly specialized tools that are designed to do one job efficiently and precisely.

Today’s tool is one of the latter. This is a stair saw I built from a kit about 10 years ago, and while I don’t use it often, it is absolutely best tool for one very specific job.

First, some details about the tool itself. The blade is 8 1/4″ long, with 13 PPI (points per inch). I made the body from spalted pecan wood, and it matches a number of other tools in my shop that have components made out of wood from the same tree.

This saw is a specialty tool that allows me to make precise cuts across the grain to a particular, repeatable depth. The body itself acts as a depth-stop. Just set the blade to the desired depth, and start sawing. The blade is secured in place by two split nuts, which are counter-sunk into the body, allowing unobstructed visibility on both sides of the saw.

As the name implies, this kind of saw was probably used a lot in making staircases once upon a time.

I have never made a staircase, but whenever I build casework, I often use a lot of dado joints for the shelves. Once I have the thickness of the shelf marked out on the upright, I use the stair saw to make two cuts, one on each side, to the correct depth. Then I remove the waste with a chisel and router plane. (As you can see, this kind of joint could easily be used in constructing stairs.)

Once I build up a rhythm, the work goes very quickly, and it doesn’t take me long to make a set of dado joints from start to finish. Thanks to my stair saw, the dado is the fastest joint I can cut.

I used it, for example, on a dresser I built not long ago for one of my daughters. Thanks to the stair saw, the drawer blades and runners (the pieces that separate the drawers from each other) fit together perfectly:

I don’t need my stair saw very often, and it usually sits behind my other saws in the saw till. But when I’m building casework furniture, I wouldn’t want to be without it.

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How to Not Grow a Business

If you spend much time as a vendor at craft markets, you’ll sense that a lot of vendors have a strong growth mentality. They’re always on the lookout for new markets to sell at. They’re developing new product lines. They’re trying to connect with more and more customers.

For a long time, I was one of those growth-minded vendors.

It has been a decade since I first set up my a display table at a local craft market, and tried my hand at selling my spoons, spatulas, and cutting boards.

Since then, I’ve grown the enterprise into a side-business. I’ve learned a lot about the economics of handmade utensils. I’ve established myself as a local “maker,” and I have several different product lines that have proved reliable sellers.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was adding additional market events, scheduling more production time at home, sourcing raw materials, experimenting with new product lines, and upgrading some of my tooling.

Then the pandemic shut everything down. That gave me time to think.


In those market-free months, I began to reflect on what I wanted my woodworking to look like in the future, and how I wanted it to integrate with other parts of my life. I reflected, too, about what parts of my craft I still actually enjoyed doing, and which parts I needed a break from.

As it turned out, not bringing in extra money from markets during the pandemic didn’t really hurt us financially. I don’t need the extra income as much as I once did. Also, my body is aging–like everybody’s does. I still enjoy pushing a sharp blade through fresh wood, but I don’t enjoy the heavy work of splitting stock out of logs as much as I used to. I could stand to slow down physically.

I have concluded that I want to spend more of my free time doing things other than making stuff for sale. I want to spend more time writing. I’ve been asked to take on additional responsibilities at church. And my children are rapidly growing up. I want to invest more time in relationships and less time in trying to generate extra cash.

That doesn’t mean I’m quitting the spoon-making business. I’ve invested a lot of time and effort into perfecting my production process, and I have lots of great spoon wood stored up. Besides, there are still lots of people who want my products, and it makes me happy to create things that people enjoy using every day.

I just don’t have any interest in growing my business anymore. In fact, I am already shrinking it in small ways. My plan going forward is to shrink it gracefully, and to bring it to the point where it remains enjoyable for the long haul.

Shrinking Gracefully

In America, business success is typically measured in growth. A healthy business is expanding into new markets, gaining a greater market share, diversifying of product lines, increasing profit margins, adding employees and departments, and increasing shareholder value–or so I learned from reading Dilbert cartoons. A failing business, on the other hand, is losing market share, cutting production, selling off assets, laying off workers, and has a “negative cash flow.” And often, businesses that stop growing–or that attempt to grow too quickly, or in the wrong ways–immediately start failing.

After all, you can’t grow your business forever. Eventually even the growingest business reaches market saturation, and/or runs afoul of antitrust laws. Or the company stops being run by people who genuinely believe in its intrinsic value. And then the inevitable decline begins. (Jeff Bezos acknowledged that this will eventually happen to Amazon.) The people who originally grew the business sell it off to others, who begin to cannibalize the company to make back their investment before selling off the remaining husk to still other investors, who will do the same thing until there are no assets left to liquidate. (Case in point: F+W Media, publishers of Popular Woodworking Magazine.)

I will never have a woodworking business that could be sold, but I intend to avoid the growth-and-decline cycle that has become so very typical of American businesses. My intent is to bring my own little side-business to a healthy equilibrium, where I am maintaining a manageable production schedule that is able to cope with little fluctuations in demand–a few more utensils one month, and a couple fewer the next month–without forcing me into marathon spoon-making sessions during peak market seasons.

I intend to shrink the business a little, and then keep it there. The question is how to do it.

Shrink Availability

I know that I could be selling more product than I currently do–which is another way of saying that demand is outstripping supply. As far as I can tell, there are two basic strategies for dealing with high demand:

  1. Increase production to meet demand
  2. Raise prices to decrease demand

I have already said that I want to decrease my production, not increase it. So should I just raise my prices?

Despite the fact that inflation is already happening (especially noticeable in the lumber industry), I have always taken a certain amount of pride in the fact that my handmade utensils are not too expensive. I don’t want to make luxury items for the wealthy. I price things to be affordable to regular, working-class people, too. I have no interest in being on the cutting edge of rising prices; I would rather lag behind.

However, there is another way to effectively raise the cost of an item without actually increasing its monetary price. Money is not, after all, the only measure of value. Value can also be measured in terms of time, especially in the amount of time you have to wait to acquire something. Remember when people waited in line all night to be among the first to purchase a new smartphone? Or think about the wait-time to purchase a fancy new electric car. The wait-time is part of the price you pay. Manufacturers could have just raised the sticker price until demand fell to the level of the supply. But they didn’t. And neither will I. There is more at stake than maximizing profits.

So, if you’re at a market and considering whether to buy some of my spoons, you might ask me when my next market is going to be. If I say, “tomorrow,” then it’s easy for you to walk away, because you can always make that purchase the next day if you still want to. But if I say, “in two months,” the pressure is on. You have an opportunity that you won’t have again for eight weeks. If you want those spoons, you’re going to have to buy them now or wait a long time for them. The wait-time is part of the price you pay.

Therefore, if I show up at fewer markets, I have effectively made my products more scarce, and have thus increased their value–without jacking up the sticker price. That just means that I won’t keep excess inventory on hand. I can sell everything I make, even at markets that aren’t particularly well attended.

This only works because local people already recognize and value my products; it wouldn’t have worked when I first started ten years ago. But as a strategy for not growing my business, it’s already working fairly well.

Shrink Product Lines

Not very long ago, I was coming up with new items to make and sell nearly every season. I suppose it started with the thumb-ring page holders. Then there were cutting boards and meat mallets. And the carpenter bee traps. And of course the pipes. But not all of those products were enjoyable to make, and some didn’t sell very well.

Take cutting boards, for example. After making a few, I came to a firm conclusion: I don’t really like making cutting boards. It’s not that they’re hard to make. They’re actually embarrassingly easy, and therefore boring, to make. Lots of other local woodworkers make custom cutting boards, and that’s great. Some of them do really good work, and I don’t try to compete with them any more.

I’m not saying I’ll never make a cutting board again. (I’m still willing to make you an overpriced cutting board if you really want me to.) But I’ve decided never to have cutting boards as a part of my regular inventory.

I am finding that a big part of shrinking gracefully is staying focused on just a few kinds of items that have turned out to be reliable sellers from market to market–spoons and spatulas. And churchwarden pipes. Those sell as fast as I can make them! And because pipe making is a rewarding challenge, I plan to keep doing it from time to time.

I’m sure I’ll experiment with other product lines now and then, just to keep myself fresh. I might run across something that I really enjoy making batches of. But I don’t ever want to have thirty different kinds of items on my market table. Eight or ten different kinds of utensils is plenty.

What I Learned from Rodney

A couple miles from my house, there’s a little independent hardware store that’s run by Rodney and his family. He’s a good businessman, but one of the things I appreciate most about him is that he has no “growth” mentality. His store sells live plants in the spring and fall, and basic plumbing, electrical, and gardening supplies the year round. The building is small but well-stocked. Prices are a bit higher than they are at the big home centers, but Rodney still does a brisk business, judging by the number of people coming in and out every day. He could have expanded his business years ago by acquiring a bigger building, branching out into paint and lumber, hiring managerial staff, and trying to compete with the big stores. But he never has, and he never will.

Rodney has proved to me that a successful business need not be growing and expanding all the time. Once a local business finds its niche, it can go on for decades as long as it keeps doing things well. That’s the kind of enterprise I want to run, if I have to do business at all.

No business lasts forever–not even some that have been around since the Renaissance. Mine won’t either. Markets change irrevocably: technology becomes obsolete, government regulations shift, and local economies implode–or explode. My little craft table at the local farmers market is somewhat insulated from the vicissitudes of the global economy, but not immune to it. But if my side-business is going to shrink, I would rather it shrink on my own terms and on my own timetable, instead of suddenly being forced into reduction or closure by market fluctuations.

My new business model has no plan for growth.

Posted in Market, Musings, Wood and Woodwork, Woodenware | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Ukulele Spoon

Did you ever have one of those odd bits of wood hanging around the shop that is pretty useless but just nice enough not to throw away?

For example:

Quite a few years ago, I brought this little piece home in a load of salvaged offcuts. I think the previous owner had planned to make a small stringed instrument but never got around to it. (I’m just going to assume it was going to be a tiny ukulele–hence the title of this post–but I’d love to hear other ideas.) It originally had a screw on the fat end and some tuning pegs.

I kept running across it whenever I cleaned up my shop space, and I nearly threw it away a couple of times. But I could see it was mahogany, and I figured one day I might want a narrow bit of mahogany for something.

This winter, I decided it needed to become a spoon. I could see that, with care, I could carve around the screw holes and make a fine little coffee spoon from it.

First step: cutting around the screw holes, so I can see where to lay out the spoon.

As I had hoped, once I cut past the screw holes, there was just enough stock left to lay out a narrow spoon using my template. I switched back and forth between a gouge and a hook knife to shape the bowl, which didn’t take long. It’s a small spoon.

The wood was dry, but it carved well with a straight sloyd knife. I had shaved the blank pretty thin, so I tried to remove as little stock as possible from the underside of the handle.

A spokeshave, card scraper, and sandpaper refined the shape and smoothed everything out. Here is the finished spoon with some water on it, just to show what it will look like oiled. As you can see, the wood still has a couple black marks left from the steel screws. I don’t mind. They are a reminder of the spoon’s origin.

After oiling, this little spoon will live with our other coffee spoons in the kitchen.

There are two take-aways from this little project:

  1. Don’t hold onto special pieces of wood forever. Make something–anything–out of them. And when in doubt, make a spoon.
  2. Mahogany very carves well, even when bone-dry. The next time somebody asks “If I can’t get freshly-cut spoon wood, what’s a good wood to carve dry?” I’m going to tell them to head down to the best lumberyard in town and pick up a narrow piece of mahogany. It won’t be cheap, but you can get a lot of spoons out of a single board. Or, you can get one spoon out of the neck of a tiny ukulele.

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Don’t Destroy Yourself

I sometimes hear dedicated hand-tool woodworkers praise the way that woodworkers of yore built splendid pieces of furniture without the aid of power tools, with the implication that we, too, should work in that totally “unplugged” way.

I used to say things like that back in my 20s. I worked 100% with hand tools for several years out of sheer necessity. I enjoyed the work and took too much pride in my hand-tool-only methods. I was in my 30s when I was offered a couple of good, used stationary power tools (a band saw and drill press among them), and I welcomed them into my shop and into my workflow.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t do all my work by hand. But I was getting tired of it. Physically tired of it.

What we forget about those unplugged woodworkers of yore is that a lot of them also worked themselves into early graves. In England in 1800, the average life expectancy for male nobles was only 54. We can only imagine that it was somewhat lower for joiners, cabinet makers, and other people who made their living by the sweat of their brows.

I’m currently in my early 40s. If I were a full-time joiner working in pre-industrial England, I would already be nearing the end of my career–especially if I had been apprenticed at 13 or 14 and attained journeyman status by 20 or 21. While I might get lucky and remain healthy enough to work into my early 60s, I could reasonably expect to see no more than another decade before I bit the (saw)dust.

But I don’t live in pre-industrial England. I live in post-industrial America, where my life expectancy is upwards of 80 (based on family history). I started working wood about 15 years ago, and I would really like to still be able to work wood when I’m in my 70s. But if I want to do that, I’ve got to take care of my body.

I was thinking about all this recently as I was experimenting with making wooden bowls. I had some sections of a poplar log that I thought would make some nice vessels, and I thought a long time about how I would hollow them out. Long ago, an adze would have been used for the bulk of the stock removal. But I don’t own an adze, nor do I really have the energy to hollow out a log by hand anymore.

Instead, I used my biggest Forstner bit in my drill press to bore out about half the waste. It took me about five minutes and very little physical effort, leaving me plenty of energy for the hand-work that followed.

I had already used my bandsaw to split the log in half, which both removed the pith and left a relatively level surface on which to draw out my bowl.

I followed the machine work with some simple hand tools, mostly a gouge and mallet. Because the wood was still very wet, it cut easily with sharp tools.

The finished product retains no sign of power-tool use. Every surface has been finished by hand, but because I used my power tools to do the initial, rough work, my hands still had energy to do the rest of the work.

I have had to be realistic about my physical limitations. As early as college, I sustained a repetitive-stress injury to my wrist by playing a musical instrument. And now I sometimes feel similar things happening to my hands and wrists if I spend too many days in a row doing the same kind of work over and over at the workbench, whether that is sawing or planing or sanding. Having a variety of things to make helps some, but I have slowly transitioned to relying on my power tools to do the bulk of the repetitive work, leaving me freer to focus on doing the really precise work (joinery, carving) by hand.

We should respect those pre-industrial woodworkers who accomplished so much working only by hand, but we shouldn’t idealize them. It seems that many of them welcomed the introduction of machinery into their shops as soon as it became available. By the end of the 19th century, English activists were decrying the inhuman conditions of fully mechanized workshops, yet the average life expectancy had risen demonstrably over the course of the century. Was that partly because workers were doing less physically-demanding work than they had a century ago? Perhaps, though there were a lot of other factors (improved sewage and medicine) in play.

Regardless of the causes of increased lifespans, the practical result is that we can reasonably expect (though are by no means guaranteed) to spend decades beyond middle age, during which we will want to do meaningful work with our bodies. Physical work can be good for the body, but it can also take its toll. After all, your body is the one tool you own that is impossible to replace. And, as a colleague of mine says, replacement parts are very expensive, if they can be found at all!

By all means use your physical abilities to create things, but don’t destroy your body for the sake of creation.

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The Literary Workshop: Now on Video!

For years, people have told me that they would like to see some video of my work, especially my spoon making. This winter I finally got around to shooting and editing some simple video at my workbench.

First, for those with a short attention span, here’s a six-minute, sped-up video of me making two utensils, a spoon and a spatula:

I’m doing this work over Christmas break, so everybody is home–including extended family visiting from out of town. Expect to see people wandering in and out of the background. It’s a regular feature of my work environment, and I’ve come to enjoy it.

The next video is longer (about 25 minutes) and is shot in real time:

There’s no sound, just visuals. So find a relaxing playlist to listen to as you watch. A couple of the kids make an appearance about two-thirds of the way through.

It should be obvious that I’m very new to producing video. I’m trying to learn video editing on my own as I go (Thank you, YouTube tutorials!), and there is so much to figure out. My equipment is also truly minimal (currently a smartphone on a tripod), so there is only so much I can accomplish without spending a substantial sum on equipment. Yet, I was pleasantly surprised at how easy a lot of basic video editing is. Shooting and editing video takes a lot of time, much more so than writing a blog post. But I was surprised to find that I actually enjoyed it.

I have to confess, however, that my interest in watching internet videos is truly minimal. I would always rather read something than watch something. That’s partly because I can read a lot faster than I can listen. If your video is longer than three or four minutes, I will probably never watch it. So I feel a little guilty trying to produce video content that I would probably not want to watch myself.

That’s never been true of this blog. I’ve always endeavored to write the kinds of blog posts that I like to read, although I have never written them at the pace at which I like to read them. (Twice a month would be my ideal publication schedule.)

On the other hand, video will enable me to tell different kinds of stories than I’ve written in the past. I’d like to shoot and post a few more videos in the coming months, hopefully with some sound and/or narration included.

But because I’m producing these videos for you and for people like you, I need suggestions on topics, themes, and ideas for upcoming videos.

What video would you like to see from me next?

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125 Utensils in Three Weeks

It was already shaping up to be a busy market season when somebody messaged me wanting to know if I could make 125 little spoons and/or spreaders. A local company wanted to put together gift baskets with locally-made items, and somehow somebody had gotten ahold of my business card, so there I was, negotiating to make over a hundred pieces–in three weeks!

So, partly because I wanted the business, and partly because I hate saying “no,” my wife and I got to work. Providentially, she had been practicing making little coffee spoons already and had several already completed. I had enough wood on hand for the rest of the items. (I’ve always got a lot of spoon wood laid aside in one form or another.) But I also had to finish my semester, and I was staring down the barrel of about 75 research papers as well as final exams that would have to be finished, too. The order would have to be filled during our “free” time.

We went into production mode. I began cutting out blanks as quickly as I could. We kept our spoon-making tools out on the workbench at all hours.

We worked on opposite ends of the workbench. My wife would take a few minutes here and there for spoon making whenever she had the chance.

Me, I’m a marathon woodworker if I get the chance, so I planed down dozens of blanks at a time.

We both wielded spokeshaves and card scrapers until our hands were sore. Piece by piece, the order started to take shape.

Fifty six down… and a lot more to go. We also had to make additional items for upcoming Christmas markets, which promised to be the busiest of the year.

About 60 of them, all laid out along our dining room table. Some are oiled, and some aren’t. It’s a mix of woods–whatever I happened to have available, really. Most are cherry. Others are walnut and pecan. Still others are random woods I had lying around.

Naturally, each of these little items needed to be tagged with a card that gave both care instructions and contact information.

I also thought it would be nice to identify the wood species, so I printed out some simple cards. We got a roll of jute twine to complete the look.

I divided up the items by wood species. My wife wrote the name of the wood on each card. We conscripted one of the kids to help us cut twine to length and punch the holes in the cards. (In case you’re curious, 10 1/2″ is the perfect length for tying a card to a little spoon.) We all tied knots.

It took us a couple batches to get everything done.

Because I delivered this order in two batches, I don’t have a picture of all 125 items tagged. But this gives you an idea. The above picture is 40 items.

In reflecting on this experience, I feel that I’ve learned a few things:

  • Even when making things individually by hand, you can make things easier on yourself by streamlining your workflow: preparing stock in batches, focusing on doing one thing at a time.
  • Production work makes you conscious of little inefficiencies in your work. I was on about my fifth butter spreader when I realized that one of the little design elements was giving me fits on every single one. I modified the design just a little bit, and the resulting change was not only easier to make, but more pleasing to my eye.
  • Hand tools are not slow. I shaped 25 of those butter spreaders in a single afternoon. Soon I could do 10-12 of the little spoons in the same amount of time. (What IS slow is learning to use the hand tools, hence hand tools’ reputation for being slow.)
  • Teamwork works. My wife made at least 50 of the spoons. Without her, I’d still be racing to finish this order. (Without her, I also never would have finished my dissertation, but that’s another story.)
  • Business cards work. They often work slowly, and 95% of them don’t lead to any business. But that 5% sure makes up for it sometimes!

Posted in Wood and Woodwork, Woodenware | 3 Comments

“For Love and Money,” My Latest Article – Published in Quercus Magazine

It’s been a few years now since Nick Gibbs shuttered a British magazine called Living Woods, which had featured articles about traditional woodworking as well as bushcraft and related matters. He had been the magazine’s sole editor as well as a regular contributor of articles, so when he sustained a serious bicycle injury, his publishing career got put on hold indefinitely. And when Living Woods suddenly shut down, an article of mine that I had sent to the magazine never did get printed.

Now Nick has recovered, and he has just printed the third issue of Quercus, a magazine published in the UK and dedicated to working wood by hand. He has very kindly published an article from me. It’s in the November/December issue, Q3, on pages 40-43.

Note my name on the very bottom of the author list. It’s a little nerve-wracking to see my own name alongside woodworking masters like Jögge Sundqvist and Mary May.

My article is called “For Love and Money,” and it describes how I turned my spoon making into a side-business, and it gives some tips along the way, should you want to try working wood for money yourself. I’m no businessman, and I do not pretend to give business advice (much less legal advice), but I’ve learned a few things about earning a small profit from my craft.

Writing the article was the fun part–I’m used to putting words on paper. But I also had to take magazine-quality pictures, something I’ve never done before. Thankfully, a couple years ago I inherited an older but high-quality Nikon DSLR camera with a tripod and a single lens in need of a little repair. My wife and I managed to get the lens working again, more or less (she has always had better fine motor skills than I have, and is a genius with tweezers and jeweler’s screwdrivers). I did a lot of reading about DSLR cameras on the internet. And I did a little experimentation.

But I didn’t have long to learn how to take pictures with a real camera. The article’s deadline was just around the corner, so I went to work snapping pictures of my tools and my carving in progress. The tripod helped a lot. I even had my 11-year-old daughter press the shutter button so I could have at least one picture of me at work.

Because a lot of the article has to do with selling my work at craft markets, I set up my craft table in a shady spot near my house and snapped pictures of my table setup. The dappled light under the trees gave me some fits, though it was still better than trying to shoot either indoors or in direct sunlight. By then, my repaired lens was starting to give out. The aperture wasn’t working right, and it kept throwing error codes, forcing me to turn my camera off, remove the lens, put the lens back on, and turn the camera on again every few shots. (Yes, I need a new lens.) While I didn’t get as many good shots as I wanted, I got enough.

Have you ever read a woodworking article and wondered what ultimately happened to the piece that was being built?

I’ve been making and selling spoons made from spalted pecan wood for years, but I’ve never kept any of them. (There are a couple that I still regret selling.) So for the process shots at my workbench, I decided to work on a new mixing spoon for myself. It was pleasing, for once, to be working on a spoon just for me–one that has to please nobody but myself. I’ve got pretty high standards for wooden spoons, so it isn’t easy to find one that pleases me in every way, but this one comes pretty close.

And that, I suppose is what my article is really all about. Most of us who work wood do it for the love of the game. We are amateurs in the best sense of the word–we have amour, or love, for the craft. But because we also need to earn a living, we sometimes turn our craft into a business. In doing so, we can gain financially, but often at the cost of our love for the work.

That has, I’m afraid, often been the case with my own spoon making. I like making spoons, and every year I get a little bit better at it, but there are days (especially with holiday markets approaching) when I’m just cranking out one spoon after another.

Now, I don’t think anybody could tell the difference from the outside. You would not be able to pick up two spoons from my craft table and be able to say with confidence, “This one was made for love, but that one was made for money.”

So it was good, for once, to be able to make a spoon for both love and money. It was one of those providential arrangements in which I wanted to make something for love (write an article, make a spoon), and somebody was willing to pay me for it. Such happy arrangements are rare; I savor them when they come.

If you want a copy of this issue, see the magazine’s website. Being a British magazine, Quercus is available mostly in the UK, although you should be able to get at least a digital subscription in the USA. The magazine’s production values are intentionally homespun–the paper is 100% recycled, so the pictures and print aren’t as crisp as you may be used to seeing in high-gloss productions like Mortise & Tenon. The copy editing leaves a little to be desired. But the articles are informative and enjoyable to read. There are also NO ads. If you enjoyed the old Woodworking Magazine and miss it as much as I do, Quercus might be just the magazine for you.

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The Art of Sanding

Sanding is so easy to do that it is very often done badly. But sanding well is a skill just like any other woodworking skill. Doing it well takes good tools, good technique, and practice.

In the world of dedicated hand-tool users (of which I consider myself a part), there are a lot of people who brag about never using sandpaper. And in the world of hand-carved wooden spoons, sanding has a stigma. The purists don’t sand at all–most burnish their work with something hard, but the most highly-praised carvers leave a “knife finish” on their work.

I have no beef with these people. If you don’t want to sand, that’s just fine. There are other ways to leave the wood with a smooth surface. Some people don’t like to use nails in their woodworking either.

But like the humble nail, sandpaper has been an essential part of the furniture maker’s toolkit for centuries. Before there was silicon carbide sandpaper at Home Depot, there was garnet paper, glass paper, and even sharkskin. Ancient peoples used ground pumice stone for smoothing wood. Like today’s mass-produced abrasives sheets, these pre-modern abrasives were disposable tools. But because they weren’t cheap, they were normally used only to prepare an already-smooth surface for finishing.

So if you’ve been avoiding sanding because you’re into pre-modern woodworking, go down to the nearest home center and pick up a pack of 220 or 320 sandpaper. Start sanding your work just like the cabinet makers used to do in 18th-century London. (You can even still buy garnet paper online–if you insist on being an absolute purist.)

Most people who already use sandpaper, however, have the opposite problem. They use sandpaper a lot, but they don’t get very good results.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on sanding. But I’ve done enough sanding on different kinds of projects to have learned how to avoid some of the most common sanding mistakes:

1: Expecting sandpaper to do the work of a cutting tool.

An important a principle in woodworking is that you should always do the bulk of your stock removal with the coarsest tool available. For example, don’t try to plane off stock that can be sawn or split off. Because many hobbyists lack proper planing equipment, they try to dress sawn surfaces with sandpaper–which takes forever, makes huge amounts of dust, and seldom leaves a flat surface.

You CAN use abrasives to remove milling marks. There are machines (like drum sanders) that are designed for serious stock removal. Heck, you can cut a board in half with a spindle sander if you really want. But as long as you are working with new lumber (reclaimed stock may be a different story), it is best to use a cutting tool such as a planer or a handplane to remove milling marks and reduce stock to the desired thickness first. Use sandpaper to remove the much fainter tool marks left by these tools.

2: Rubbing wildly, ignoring grain direction.

One reason that sanding wood is such a good way to prepare the surface to receive a finish is that the scratches left by the sandpaper blend in with the grain of the wood. IF you sand directly with the grain, that is. While random orbital sanders allow you to move the abrasive across the wood in any direction and end up with an excellent surface (as long as you sand to a fine enough grit), many of us still need to sand by hand.

If the wood you are sanding has very straight grain, sanding back and forth, up and down the surface, will probably work just fine. But not all grain runs parallel to the long edges of the surface. If the grain takes a big curve, you might need to follow that curve instead of sanding in a straight line right across it.

When you hold the sandpaper in your hand and rub vigorously from side to side, you aren’t sanding in a straight line. You are sanding in an arc. Your elbow acts as a pivot point, and your hand moves in a curve around it, which can result in an undesirable scratch pattern. Instead, trying sanding in one direction only, using long, even strokes. Back-and-forth motion is okay in the coarser grits, but you’ll get better results sanding in only one direction with your finest grit.

3: Using the wrong grits (or the wrong sequence of grits).

Looking over the many sandpaper options at the home center, you may wonder if you really need ALL those different grits. Well, no, you don’t need all of them. But you do need several of them. Which ones? That depends.

If you have fairly good surfacing tools (say, a sharp handplane), then you may need only a couple of grits: 220 for surfaces that will get a film finish and 320 or 400 for surfaces that will get oiled or waxed. 120 or 150 is good for sanding out minor tear-out or errant milling marks. Unless you are stripping paint, you probably don’t need 60 or 80 grit, and unless you are making tobacco pipes, you probably don’t need 1,000 grit. Each grit has its purpose, though. Trying to sand out tear-out with 400-grit is an exercise in frustration. But if you try to finish-sand with 80-grit, you’re going to be disappointed with the results.

And yes, it IS best to sand through each grit until you get to the desired level of smoothness. If you have done a good job planing down the wood, then a quick once-over with 220-grit may be all you need. But if you have used 150-grit to remove some tear-out, and you want to sand down to 400, do you HAVE to use 220 and 320 in between? Technically, no. Eventually your 400 grit will remove the scratches left by the 150-grit sandpaper. Eventually. But it could take a while. Remember what I said about using the coarsest tool available to do the bulk of the stock removal? That principle applies here, too. After sanding with one grit, your next-finest grit IS the coarsest tool available.

One more thing: sandpaper grits are not absolutely consistent between brands. One company’s 220 may be a bit coarser or finer than 220 from another company. So if you can, pick one brand that you like and stick with it as you work through the grits.

4: Using the wrong kind of sandpaper.

At first, it comes as a surprise to novices that there are different types of sandpaper at all. Then after a bit of research, the shock sets in. There are SO MANY different kinds of sandpaper! And because most manufacturers make several different grades of sandpaper, it can be hard to know what kind to get.

This is not the place (nor do I have the expertise) to compare and explain the many different kinds of abrasive grits, backings, and sizes of sandpaper. All I’ll say is this: you don’t need the most expensive sandpaper, but avoid the cheapest kind.

Cheap sandpaper feels and acts a lot like a sheet of paper with sand glued to it. (Surprising fact: sandpaper is not actually made with sand.) This stuff is available at hardware stores and Walmarts everywhere, and it’s awful stuff to use. The paper backing tears easily, and the abrasive grit comes off quickly. It’s a waste of money.

Fortunately, there IS better sandpaper readily available. Good sandpaper has a thicker backing that won’t tear as soon as you crease it, and the grit tends to stay in place as you use it. When you pick up a sheet of good sandpaper in one hand and cheap sandpaper in another hand, you’ll feel the difference immediately. Spend the extra couple bucks for the good stuff.

5: Allowing the sandpaper to load up.

As you use sandpaper, tiny particles of wood dust get trapped between the grit particles in the sandpaper. The more dust that gets trapped, the less effectively the grit particles will cut. Eventually the sandpaper will stop cutting almost altogether.

Often, when the sandpaper gets loaded up with dust, we just switch to a different piece of sandpaper. There’s nothing wrong with that approach. Sandpaper is cheap, and a fresh piece does cut best. Depending on the species of wood you’re sanding, you may have to switch out sheets frequently. But if you are a cheapskate economically-minded, you can prolong the life of your sandpaper by regularly tapping or even brushing out the dust frequently.

If you are sanding finished wood, this may not work. (Even dried lacquer really loads up sandpaper in a hurry, for instance.) So make sure you keep a good supply of sandpaper on hand.

6: Never using a backer or sanding block.

Most hobbyists use sandpaper by holding it in their fingers and rubbing it back and forth on the wood. Although this simple technique is appropriate in some situations (sanding the handles of the wooden spoons I make comes to mind), most sanding should be done with a padded backer of some kind.

Sanding blocks are not nearly as ubiquitous as they should be. When it comes to sanding flat surfaces, there’s no substitute for using a sanding block. They are cheap, easy to use, and give great results. They can be bought ready-made, or you can make one yourself. Mine took me maybe 10 minutes to make. Just glue a bit of padding (cork is traditional; I used thin leather) to a flat block of wood, and you have a sanding block.

For smaller sanding jobs, consider using smaller backing material. I often use a foam-backed emery board for detail-sanding. The emery boards themselves have pretty good abrasives and can be bought in different grits. Or just get a foam-backed nail-buffing board and wrap your sandpaper around it.

7: Breathing the dust.

What is the most dangerous tool in your shop? The table saw? The powered jointer? Consider the possibility that your most dangerous tool may be your sandpaper.

If you do your sanding in a poorly-ventilated shop, you will end up breathing in a lot of sanding dust. And while I haven’t reviewed the latest medical studies on the health risks of breathing in wood dust, I do know that regularly breathing in a lot of foreign particles day after day for years on end can lead to serious lung problems. A cutting tool does its damage all at once, but sanding dust can quietly take its toll over a period of years.

If possible, do your sanding outdoors. Or sand near a big, open door and set up a fan to blow the dust outside. You will be surprised at how well even a small fan can disperse sanding dust. If you must sand by hand indoors, consider using your shop vac (with a good filter installed, of course) to pick up as much dust as possible as you work. And if you run machines indoors that make a lot of dust (especially sanders), then be sure to install a good dust-collection system, too.

Somebody Please Write This Book

What I’ve said above has only scratched the surface (pun totally intended) of the topic of sanding. The more I think about it, the more I think there is a book to be written on the tools and techniques of woodworking abrasives. It should be called The Art of Sanding. (Or, if you pitch it to Lost Art Press, try using a title like The Anarchist’s Sandbox. That’s sure to get your foot in the door.) From exploring the mechanics of sanding on the microscopic level and comparing different kinds of abrasive grits, to good sanding technique and exploration of different sanding machines–there is a lot to cover. Apparently there’s a least one such book already, though I think it’s about 25 years old now and is probably due for an update.

At first glance, sandpaper looks like such a simple tool. And it IS simple. But sometimes, the simpler the tool, the more challenging it is to use it effectively.

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What’s in a Name?

Since middle school, most of us have hesitated to let other people give us names. Name-calling is a basic tool in the toolbox of bullies and leaders of cliques. And even though our parents mostly gave us nice, socially-acceptable names, we still tried on a few nicknames as teenagers. Going to college often means that, for once in your life, you get to shed your previous identity and form a new one, often with a different name than you were called at home or in high school. There’s no feeling quite like the realization that you are suddenly free to choose your own name.

As an English professor, I spend a lot of time thinking about names–what they communicate to others, how they shape our identity, and even how they can conceal things about us. And as a writer of articles and blog posts, I have also had to face the fact that I am singularly bad at coming up with good titles for what I’m writing. In other words, I struggle to give my work a name that is both accurate and evocative.

When I first started selling wooden spoons at local craft markets, I struggled to come up with a name for my little enterprise. I already had “The Literary Workshop” attached to this blog, but that would have been misleading for a one-man outfit that sells handmade kitchenware. (In retrospect, “Literary Workshop” sounds more like a creative writing group than a woodworking blog, but that doesn’t really bother me. Much.) I sketched out a few different titles for the business, and I eventually settled on “Schuler Woodenware.”

As a name, “Schuler Woodenware” worked okay. My last name was there, and I thought “woodenware” (which is not actually a recognized word in most dictionaries) described the kinds of things I made to sell. I owe the word to Whetstone Woodenware, a small, commercial maker of wooden spoons in northern Indiana near where I went to college.

I’ve used the name for the last nine years, yet I am sometimes slow to see (or hear) the obvious. When I pull up my van at a market, I never hear “Oh, there’s Schuler Woodenware!” Nope. The name has not stuck. Do you know what everyone calls me? “The Spoon Guy.”

“Oh, The Spoon Guy is here!” says every market organizer. “I was hoping The Spoon Guy” would be here,” says the happy, repeat customer. I should have given in and adopted the name officially years ago.

“The Spoon Guy.” It’s not a fancy name, but it sure is descriptive. It communicates exactly what I make to sell.

So after several years of being known informally as “The Spoon Guy,” I’ve decided to accept the name. I’m not doing away with Schuler Woodenware entirely, but I’ve decided to make “The Spoon Guy” a part of my signage. It’s now on my display table sign, and on my business cards.

The larger lesson in all this, I think, is that it really is okay to let others give you a name–provided that the name communicates something good and true. A good name is often earned, but it’s also a kind of gift. A good name comes from people recognizing who you are. And hopefully, in receiving a good name, you come to recognize yourself in it, too.

“The Spoon Guy.”

Yep, that’s me.

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Hurricane Sally: A Woodworker’s Perspective

To employ the worst of literary cliches: “It was a dark and stormy night.”

It really was. On the evening of Tuesday, 15 September 2020, Hurricane Sally slowly moved into the Alabama Gulf Coast. For the last few days, our area had been predicted to be just to the east of the storm’s center (which is always the most dangerous side–west is best, east is the beast, as we say down here). But the storm kept shifting eastward, and the eye wall (the part of the storm with the strongest winds) came ashore just to the west of us, sparing our neighborhood the worst of the storm.

But listening to the winds whipping the trees around all night, and hearing branches breaking and transformers blowing, well… I didn’t get much sleep that night. Our power went out at some point during the night, which we all expected. There was nothing to do but wait for the morning and see how bad it was. At first light, I got up and looked around.

There were still strong gusts that threatened to take down trees and damage roofs. Our house, thank God, was just fine–no damage whatsoever. Standing on my porch watching the wind and rain was strangely peaceful after a long night of danger–at least now I could see what was going on.

There wasn’t much to do besides wait for the storm to pass. My wife made us some coffee in our French press. (When we first moved in, we installed a gas stove and gas water heater for just such occasions.) We ate some muffins she had baked the other day and watched the tail end of the storm from the relative safety of our dining room.

Mid-morning, it was time do get up and do something. Fortunately, 90% of my woodworking is unplugged anyway, and while I usually rely on a lamp for extra light at the bench, my spoon making could proceed as usual.

We’ve been preparing for a couple upcoming craft markets, so we opened up the curtains and started making spoons and spatulas like normal.

After a couple hours, the winds had died down and it seemed safe to walk around the neighborhood and see what damage had occurred–and if there was anybody who needed help.

There were lots of small limbs and branches in every yard, and our neighbors had some trees down. In one yard, a tree had been partially uprooted and was leaning dangerously toward a house. In another yard, an old double-trunk cedar had split apart, taking down a power line and blocking the driveway. All over the neighborhood it was the same.

A couple blocks away, a big tulip poplar came down and blocked the whole street. (That’s me walking toward it.) It missed hitting somebody’s car by about two feet. Fortunately nobody in our neighborhood had been injured.

Some years ago I bought myself a chainsaw, mostly so I could cut up logs I found for spoons and other projects. But in the back of my mind, I knew one day I’d be using it for hurricane cleanup. It was heartwarming to see all the neighbors rally to help each other clean up. Those of us with chainsaws cut what we could deal with safely. The rest of us helped pile up branches out of the way and clear debris. Even the little kids got into the action, carrying small branches and raking up twigs and leaves. By the end of the day, most of our local streets were passable again.

Naturally, I salvaged a few promising logs for spoon making. I find that there’s always a healthy demand for ultra-local woodenware, especially if the wood has a story behind it. Eventually these are going to be “Sally Spoons” and “Sally Spatulas.” I might even make a few “Sally Salad Sets.”

We were surprised and delighted when the power came back on at about 6 p.m. on Wednesday. We had resigned ourselves to being without power for a couple days at least, but we were powerless for fewer than 18 hours total. As I write this on Saturday afternoon, some areas south of us are still without power, and an army of linemen are working literally around the clock to fix power poles and electrical lines.

When Hurricane Sally hit, many of Alabama’s linemen were still in southwest Louisiana, helping with cleanup from Hurricane Laura, which had hit there about three weeks ago. (I understand that the hardest-hit areas of Louisiana are STILL without electricity.) So we were grateful to see trucks not only from Alabama but also from Georgia and other surrounding states. My wife even saw a truck from Michigan and overheard the driver tell someone on the phone (presumably his wife) that, no, he hadn’t been to the beach, and that he didn’t think there were any power poles to work on at the beach anyway.

One of the biggest post-hurricane problems we all have is food storage. A freezer or refrigerator without power will stay cold inside for several hours, but not for several days. An older acquaintance of mine suggested freezing several gallons of water (pour a little bit out first to allow for expansion). Then, when the power goes out, stick them in the top of the fridge and turn the whole thing into an old-fashioned ice box.

It worked like a charm! All our food stayed cold, and nothing spoiled. The gallons were still frozen almost solid when the power did come back on. I suspect they could have kept the fridge pretty cold for up to another day. But I’m glad we didn’t have to find out personally.

Hurricane clean-up can take a very long time. The news cycles have already moved on to other big stories, so unless you’re on the Alabama Gulf Coast or Florida Panhandle, it’s likely that you’ve almost forgotten about Hurricane Sally, not to mention Hurricane Laura. But this afternoon I drove through the neighborhood and saw one house whose roof was halfway gone. A big tree had come down right through it, and it’s not the only house in our city with severe damage. For many people, it will be weeks if not months before their lives are “back to normal.”

In the meantime, I’ve got some wood set aside to make some commemorative items from. Driving up and down the city’s streets, there’s lots more wood where that came from.

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