Podcast Recommendation: Hand Tool Book Review

I don’t listen to a lot of podcasts.  Yes, there are a lot of great podcasts out there, but the time I have available for listening is pretty limited, so I have to choose my podcasts with care.

That said, I’ve recently run across a podcast that I’ve really enjoyed: Hand Tool Book Review, by Ray Deftereos.

Most episodes are 20-40 minutes long, and each one focuses on a different book about hand tools.  While most of the books he reviews are fairly new, he does also take note of older classics.  Ray gives detailed overviews of the books, and he reflects on which parts he has found most useful in his shop.  He’s honest about each book’s strengths and weaknesses, but he tends to focus on books that he can strongly recommend.

Thus far, he has been publishing one podcast a week, which is a pretty impressive rate of work given how much reading, writing, and editing obviously goes into each podcast.  To date, he’s published 21 episodes, but I’m still a few episodes behind.  I don’t know how long he’s going to keep up this production schedule, but he’s already made a lot of great material available.

If you’re into woodworking at all, and you enjoy reading (which I hope covers a lot of subscribers to this blog), I think you will find the Hand Tool Book Review podcast to be really engaging.

Happy listening!

Posted in books, Reviews, Wood and Woodwork, Woodworking Literature | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

What to Do with an Old Treadle Sewing Machine

My wife and I were cleaning out one of our storage spaces, and she dragged out a very old treadle sewing machine.  A decade in the heat and humidity had not been kind to its wooden parts, which hadn’t been in the best shape when we first acquired it. I think it once belonged to a great-aunt, and my wife had learned to sew on it.

I was focused on other things that day, and when I poked my head around the corner, I found my wife taking the whole thing apart.

Sewing Machine Desk for G 2020

“Do you want to try to repair the wooden parts?” she asked me.

I took a quick look.  Even if I took the trouble to repair everything (which would be a LOT of work), what would we even do with this?  With a sigh, I told her I would rather not try to fix it up.

“Then can you make me a new top so I can use it as a writing desk?” she asked.

“How do you feel about mahogany?” I asked in return.

I had been sorting through all my lumber and had just run across a few short mahogany boards that I had been given a long time ago.  If I was saving them for “that special project,” this was definitely it.

I pulled out the dusty old boards and started laying them next to each other, moving them this way and that until I got what I thought was a reasonable orientation for each board.  Then after giving them a good scrub with soap and water and letting them dry, I took them to the workbench and started planing.

Oh. My. Goodness.  These boards were far prettier than I thought.  I edge-jointed them and glued them up into a panel for the top of the writing desk.

Sewing Machine Desk for G 2020

I’ve never really worked with mahogany before.  I knew it was a prized (and expensive) wood for furniture making, but I had always wondered why it was so popular with woodworkers.

Now I know why.

I have never encountered a hardwood that is so pleasing to work.  Mahogany cuts smoothly and planes down very easily.  With a sharp blade, I could plane it in any direction with minimal tear-out.  And of course the color is beautiful.  Even highly figured boards like these plane down with no problems.  Mahogany really is the perfect furniture wood.

I’m not saying I’m going to start using it on a daily basis, though.  For one thing, I don’t have that kind of money.  For another, there are local wood species that I am keen to use whenever I can.  But I sure didn’t mind using these pieces that I already had on hand.

Anyway, back to the writing desk.

Sewing Machine Desk for G 2020

Attaching the top was simple.  I screwed it on from underneath using small, pan-head screws with oversize washers to allow for a bit of wood movement in the top.  Mahogany doesn’t expand and contract drastically with the seasons, but I really don’t want the top cracking in dry weather, so I took every reasonable precaution I could.

I also made a small wooden “leg” that attaches to the lower hinged arch on the metal legs.  The leg attaches underneath the top with an angle bracket, and it adds considerable stability.

Sewing Machine Desk for G 2020

I finished the top with several coats of clear lacquer, which shows off the figure pretty well.

Now my wife has a new writing desk.  Because the sewing machine legs have wheels, she’s able to transport it around the house depending on where she wants to work.  And you would think that the treadle and fly wheel would get in the way, but they actually function as a kind of fidget-spinner for your feet.  (We have a few compulsive foot-tappers in our family.)

Not counting the time it took for glue and finishes to dry, the whole project probably took about 3 hours.

Posted in Furniture, Sewing, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

From Toy Box to Tool Chest

When my kids were very young, I built a few things for them–a cradle, a toddler bed, and a toy box.  But kids grow up, and if you build these things right, you eventually look around at all the kid-sized stuff you made and wonder what you’re going to do with it.  So the cradle is in storage (for grandkids, maybe?) and the baby bed was given away.

But a toy box has a lot of re-purposing potential.  My son, who just finished 2nd grade, has taken a real interest in woodworking.  So recently we pulled out the old toy box and got ready to convert it into a small tool chest.

I made the original box for in about 2007, several years before he was born.

Toy Chest 1

I had been reading in one of Roy Underhill’s books about the six-board chest, which is made from wide boards nailed together.  I made my own version at my tiny workbench (in the house we lived in at the time, the workbench doubled as a kitchen island).  I added the battens all around for extra strength, knowing that the box was going to be roughly used.

And indeed, the box did take a beating.  It held toys and other things.  It got dragged around and dumped out.  It even made an appearance as the Ark of the Covenant in a church skit.  Eventually my wife asked me to remove the lid so the kids wouldn’t get their fingers smashed.  At some point, the box itself got stowed away, and the lid got lost for a few years in my lumber pile.

The box needed some cleaning by the time my son and I pulled it out.  I reattached the lid, and everything seemed to be solid.  The main thing we needed to do was to install a couple of sliding tool trays in the top.

Toy Chest Tool Box for R 2020

The trays themselves are very simply constructed.  The corners are rabbeted and nailed, and the bottom is nailed on.  My son was very happy to help nail everything together.

Toy Chest Tool Box for R 2020

We constructed two sliding tills.  The top one is shallow, and the bottom one is deeper.  The slide on rails that are nailed to the sides.  There’s still enough space left in the bottom to store taller tools like handplanes.

Toy Chest Tool Box for R 2020

Now he has a real tool chest with sliding tool trays, just like dad’s.  Now all he needs are some hand tools to fill it up!

Posted in Boxes, Kids, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Requiem for a Post Oak

One of my favorite things about our little suburban yard has been the 100-year-old post oak tree–a species of white oak that you don’t see much down here on the coast.  It was a beautiful shade tree, sheltering the west side of the house and yard from the harsh, afternoon sun.  And one of the lower limbs was the perfect height for a tree swing.  The kids spent hours on the tire swing I hung there for them.  Judging from the size–and the fact that there are one or two other post oaks of similar size in the neighborhood–I think it must have been planted about the time the house was built, right at the end of WWI.

Oak Tree Removal 2020

Unfortunately, this oak tree was starting to lean dangerously toward the house.  When we moved in some years ago, it had stood straight up, but now it was most definitely leaning.  With an active hurricane season predicted for this summer, we decided it would be better to take the tree down on our terms, rather than have it come down on the house during a storm.

Oak Tree Removal 2020

Here’s my son beside the tree, showing both its size and its deteriorating condition.  You can also see that my daughter has been using the rotten section for archery practice.  Evidently it was struck by lightning a couple decades back (before we lived here), and eventually the bugs got into it and continued to weaken the trunk, which is about 3 feet in diameter.  You can see the remains of the lightning damage, as well as the bug damage, all the way up the trunk.

Oak Tree Removal 2020

The day came, and the tree removal service was professional and very fast.  Because the tree was standing out in the open, it was a relatively simple job (for them).

Oak Tree Removal 2020

The ground shook when they finally felled the trunk.  I asked them to leave a few of the larger-diameter upper limbs, hoping that I could make some small items to remember the tree by.  As a rule, shade trees don’t produce good lumber for woodworking.  The spreading branches, though large, have lots of tension built up in them over the years, and the knotty wood they yield tends to warp badly.  The lower trunk, though wide, also had many big knots in it.  And frankly, that trunk looked a lot bigger than I could safely handle with my little chainsaw.  So they hauled it all away.

I had told the tree service that there was no need to grind down the stump.  I figured the children would enjoy having a little picnic platform on the corner of the yard.  But as the tree guy was cutting through the bottom of the stump, the saw’s chain hit something metal and stopped in its tracks.  He couldn’t finish the cut; the stump would have to be ground down from there.

Oak Tree Removal 2020

So there was the tall stump, cut halfway through at the bottom, waiting for a stump grinder or termites or whatever to finish it off.  You can see, though, the black stain in the center of the stump in the picture above.  That tell-tale color indicates the presence of ferrous metal in oak.  Given the location at the center of the stump, I figured it was probably some metal stake or post that had supported the tree when young, and that the tree had just swallowed up as it grew.

Oak Tree Removal 2020

To give you an idea of the size of this stump (and to show you where it was cut halfway), here are all five of my kids standing together on top of it.  It’s about 3 feed across at the top, and even wider at the bottom.  We had fun counting the rings (the tree was definitely about 100 years old), and we pointed out how big the tree was when each of us was born, and when major world events had occurred.  It was a fascinating walk back through the last century.

Anyhow, the stump stood there for a week or so, and I got to thinking about it.  And the more I thought about it, the more I considered how I might be able to deal with it myself–with just the tools I had.  I reasoned that, if I could cut or split off the half of the stump that was already undercut, I might be able to (a) remove a lot of the stump, and (b) salvage some short, wide planks of white oak.  I thought that if I split off pieces of the stump piece by piece, I could sneak up on the metal in it and maybe even finish the stump off with a reciprocating saw with a long, metal-cutting blade.

I took a good, long look at the work that had already been done, and at the black stain–helpfully locating the embedded metal that I wanted to avoid.  I put an old but sharp chain onto my 18″ chainsaw and began cutting.

Oak Tree Removal 2020

I made two vertical cuts opposite each other near the center of the log, but away from the black stain.  The cuts did not nearly meet, even though I buried my chainsaw’s bar entirely on both sides.  I tried to use my wedges to finish the cut by splitting, but the wood wouldn’t budge.  So I made a third vertical cut in order to cut the half into two quarters.

Oak Tree Removal 2020

That loosened enough of the wood that I was able to split off quarters.  On this side of the stump (the undamaged side), there was nothing but clear, straight white oak stock.  The first piece I removed was extremely heavy, but with the help of a wheeled dolly I was just able to move it.  So I started splitting off more manageable pieces.  The section you see above is over 3″ thick.  My steel splitting wedges got lots of assistance from my bigger wooden wedge, made from seasoned red oak.



Oak Tree Removal 2020

Now, with the work half done, I could better see what I was looking at.  You can see the black stain all the way through the center of the tree. There’s definitely metal in there somewhere.

The work I had just finished was the relatively safe part.  Now I had to figure out how to sneak up on the embedded metal without hitting it.  But I figured that, if I did hit metal, the chain on my saw was nearly worn out anyway, and then I would know which part of the tree to avoid from there on out.

I gingerly started to extend the horizontal cut (the one started by the tree guy) little by little, every moment expecting to hear the chain hit metal.  But every inch I cut was clear wood.  In places the wood was obviously soft, even rotten.  Eventually I had undercut another quarter, which I then sawed/split off.

Oak Tree Removal 2020

I saw what I had suspected all along.  The root system of the tree was definitely compromised.  I called my wife over to show her what I had uncovered.  We were both glad we had decided to take the tree down when we did.

Soon I was carefully undercutting the final quarter, still expecting to hit metal.  I was surprised when, all of a sudden, I felt the whole thing shake free.  I had cut all the way through the rest of the stump–and I hadn’t hit a bit of metal.  With a surprised shrug, I put down the chainsaw and went to work splitting up the last, damaged quarter with my wedges.

Oak Tree Removal 2020

You can see how bad a shape this side of the tree was in.  No wonder it was leaning!  These sections of the stump are all firewood, but I estimate that about 2/3 of the stump was sound wood.

Oak Tree Removal 2020

With the sections of the stump out of the way, my son tried exploring the depth of the hole in the stump with a broom handle.  It’s deep!

To prevent the kids from losing things down it (or stepping in it and turning an ankle), we filled it up with wood chips and sawdust–of which there was plenty lying around.

After the sections of the stump were removed, it took me a week or two to get them split into sections and laid aside to season.

Oak Tree Removal 2020

But after removing the sapwood and the knotty center, I was still left with a lot of clear, straight heartwood that’s 12″-15″ wide.  Here’s the 18″ bar of my chainsaw alongside one of the sections for comparison.

We did eventually find the embedded metal.  It wasn’t a stake after all, but a series of nails that had been driven into the tree at some point.


Based on a quick count of the tree’s rings, I would guess it was around WWII.  I have the section with the nails in it sitting near the fire pit, waiting to be given a Viking funeral.  I hate the fact that, 70 years ago, somebody drove a bunch of nails into a perfectly fine shade tree (probably in the process of building a fence, judging from the location and spacing of the nails).  But if it hadn’t been for those nails, the tree service probably would have removed this section of the stump, too, and hauled it away.  Because of the nails, I now possess a large amount of wood from the old shade tree.  And for that, I am thankful.

What will I do with the wood from the tree?  I’m not entirely sure yet, but I’m thinking I’ll make the kids each something out of it, perhaps some step stools or something like that–mementos to remember the old oak tree by.  It’s going to take the wood a few years to season, so I have some time to think about it.

Posted in Lumber, power tools, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Sloyd Knife Sheaths

I really like my Morakniv sloyd knives, which I use for spoon carving.  They take a very good edge, they are reasonably priced, and they are still made in Sweden by people who know what good tool steel is.

Recently I’ve been making wooden sheaths for all of them.

Sloyd Knife Sheaths 2020

Because if there’s one thing I’ve hated about these knives, it’s the chintzy, generic plastic sheaths that come with them.

Sloyd Knife Sheaths 2020

The knives all come in exactly the same sheath, regardless of blade length, so the shorter knives are constantly falling out of them.

Many craftsmen make sheaths for their knives out of fine leather or even out of birch bark.  But I’m not leather worker, and birch bark isn’t exactly common down here on the Alabama Gulf Coast, so I’ve kept the sheath project on the back burner.  Finally I saw a simple method on Instagram for solid wooden sheaths that protect the blades and keep the knives from falling out.  (I’d give credit for the design if I could remember where I learned it–suffice to say, none of the following is original to me.)

Here’s the gist of the method, and then I’ll give the details below: cut a block of wood in half, route out a blade-shaped recess in one of the halves, leaving the mouth tight.  Glue the two halves together again.  Open up the mouth if necessary with a knife or a file until you get a proper friction-fit.  Shape the outside of the new sheath to your heart’s content.

Sloyd Knife Sheaths 2020

This is one of the sheaths I made–indeed, the last one I made, once I got the bugs worked out of the process.  It’s made of a scrap of dry walnut wood.  The others in the first pic above are made from cypress scraps.  Cypress worked okay, but the wood is softer, and I managed to ruin a couple of sheaths during the process.  So I recommend a good hardwood like walnut, maple, cherry, poplar, or just about anything you have lying around (but not oak, which has tanins that will cause ruse).  Pine will do fine if you’re careful. It really helps if the wood is straight grained and completely free of knots.  It must be totally dry, or it may shrink and trap your knife blade inside it.

Exact dimensions don’t matter much.  You need a piece of wood that’s about 5/8″-3/4″ thick and about 3/4″ wider than the blade of your knife.  Length doesn’t matter, so long as it’s a little longer than the knife blade.

Sloyd Knife Sheaths 2020

First, resaw the wood and plane down the matching pieces so they mate with each other.  I kept track of grain orientation, just to ensure the sheath looks like a single piece of wood at the end.  Then trace the blade of your knife onto one half with a pencil.  You will route out this profile just to the depth of the knife blade’s thickness, except for the very end of the opening.

Sloyd Knife Sheaths 2020

Use a carving knife to cut all around the penciled lines.  If you remove the pencil lines entirely, the knife blade will have plenty of space to fit.


Sloyd Knife Sheaths 2020

I used two methods to excavate the waste.  I used a chisel (bevel down) to do most of the work.  Then I used a small router plane to make sure everything was cut out even.  On some of the sheaths I made, I used a marking gauge to first mark the final depth across the mouth and then excavated everything with the chisel alone.  Either method works fine.

Sloyd Knife Sheaths 2020

As I said above, you want the sheath to be tight right up at the opening.  The rest of it can (and should) fit the blade quite loosely.  So leave the mouth of the sheath thick right up at the last 1/4″ or so.  You want a tight fit at the mouth, which can easily be eased with a small carving knife or a file after the two pieces are glued back together.  But it’s much harder to fix a too-tight fit further down.

Sloyd Knife Sheaths 2020

Now glue the two halves together.  Be careful with clamping pressure, as a clamp can collapse the space you’ve so carefully excavated–as I learned from experience.

Sloyd Knife Sheaths 2020

Once the glue is dry, you need to reduce the outside dimensions.  I laid the knife on top of the sheath, and then drew the outline of the blade but stayed about 3/16″ away from the blade on all sides. I cut the profile out with my bow saw.

Sloyd Knife Sheaths 2020

After smoothing everything out with a spokeshave and easing all the sharp corners, I dipped the sheath in Danish oil and set it aside to dry.

Sloyd Knife Sheaths 2020

On some of the sheaths, I have carved the Morakniv model number because people are always asking for recommendations for knives, and I can never remember the model numbers.

While I was at it, I also made a case for my Mora 164 hook knife.  Because of the shape of a hook knife’s blade, making a wooden sheath for it is a little more involved, but it also provides an opportunity to play with color contrasts in wood.  I’ll show how I made the hook knife cases in a future post.

Posted in Build-Alongs, Carving, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to Start Carving Spoons

As part of my ongoing “How to Start” series of blog posts, here is some advice on how to start carving spoons.  My goal is not to guide you through the entire process of making a spoon; I just want to put you at the right trail head with enough equipment to make some progress on your own.

Spoon-making requires perhaps the fewest tools of any specific branch of woodworking.  If you’re just going and getting branches off trees and carving them into spoons, then you need very few tools.  You need more if you’re starting with bigger pieces of wood, but for the moment let’s assume you’re just starting with tree branches or other small pieces of wood–scraps and whatnot.  Here are the very basic necessities:

  • You need a saw to cut wood to length.  Even a tree saw or limb saw will do–this is something you can get from a hardware store.
  • You need a hatchet to do the rough shaping.  There are dedicated spoon-making hatchets being made by individual craftsman, and many of them are quite beautiful.  But all you really need is a regular camp hatchet with a wooden handle–again, something you can get at the hardware store.
  • You need a knife to do the regular shaping.  I recommend the Mora 106 to begin with.  It’s a Sweedish-made knife with a very basic handle, but the steel is very good, and the knife is surprisingly affordable.  There are nicer and more expensive knives out there, but start with this one.
  • You need a hook knife to carve out the bowl of the spoon.  I recommend the Mora 164.  It’s affordable and has a good radius for most spoon work.  Again, there are many finer and better hook knives available for a higher price, but this one will do to begin with.


Those are all the tools you absolutely need to make a spoon.

However, there are two more things you absolutely need in addition to the above:

  1. You need some kind of chopping block.  It can be as simple as a section of 2X4 set on the ground, and you work from a kneeling position (not ideal, but it works), or you can be as fancy as attaching legs to a section of a tree trunk.  But you need some kind of stable work surface for the axe work.  Ideally, it should be a few inches lower than your waist.
  2. You need sharpening equipment. (This is where a lot of woodworkers get stuck.)  Sharpening equipment is worth investing some money in because you can use it for sharpening EVERYTHING, from kitchen knives and pocketknives to your regular woodworking tools.

All your edge tools, including the hatchet, will need regular sharpening.  You won’t be able to carve more than one spoon without sharpening, so don’t talk yourself into putting off acquiring sharpening equipment “until you need it.”  You will need it about ten minutes after you put your tools to the wood for the first time.

To begin with, you can use sandpaper stuck to a flat surface, but sandpaper wears out quickly.  For spoon carving, you’re better off getting a double-sided oilstone. I have one that’s a soft Arkansas stone on one side and a hard Arkansas stone on the other, and I lube it with WD-40. You can save some money by getting a double-sided India stone, which is a synthetic stone.  It doesn’t produce as fine of an edge as a good Arkansas stone, but it’s cheap and you won’t wear it out.


To put the final, razor-edge on your knives, you need a strop–just a piece of plain leather glued fuzzy-side-up to a flat surface like a block of wood.  You will also need something to hone the inside of the hook knife; I use a piece of leather glued to a section of 1″ PVC pipe, though you could also use a section of a wooden dowel or even a smooth tree branch with the bark removed as a substrate for the leather.  If you strop your edges every few minutes, you will keep them keen and reduce the amount of time you will have to spend re-honing them on the stones.

With the above tools, you can make spoons that you can eat from and use daily in your kitchen.

But what about finishing?  You can make a spoon and use it straight from the knife with no finish whatsoever.  However, most people like to put a final finish on their spoons.  Some burnish them smooth with something hard and smooth, like a piece of antler, bone, porcelain, or even stone.  Others scrape their spoons smooth with a piece of glass or a card scraper.  Still others just sand them down, starting with 120 or 220 grit and ending with 320, 400, or even finer.  You can do any, all, or none of these.

Most people oil their spoons before using.  The traditional finish is several thin coats of raw linseed oil (allow the spoon to dry in the sun between coats) or a commercial finish like salad bowl finish or butcher block oil (apply two or three coats about an hour apart, and then rub down with a soft cloth; allow the finish to cure completely before washing and using).  Experiment to see which finish gets you the results you like most.

Finally, you need guidance.  These tools are dangerous if used improperly, and you will wear yourself out quickly if you use bad technique.  I recommend learning in person from an experienced spoon carver if you can.  (Be sure he or she will teach you to sharpen, too.)  In lieu of that, here are two of my favorite online videos on spoon carving.  The first is Peter Follansbee’s appearance on Roy Underhill’s show The Woodwright’s Shop.  The second is the first in a series by longtime carver Jögge Sundqvist, who shows you each grip and cut.  Get yourself a piece of wood and a knife, and try to follow along with each video in the series.

So there you have it–everything you need to start carving spoons.

Posted in Tutorials, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to Start Working Wood (part 2), What Should You Make First?

“What’s a good beginner project?”

I hear this question a lot on woodworking forums and discussion groups.  A novice wants to get into woodworking, but he or she doesn’t know what to make first.

I admit I don’t quite understand why anybody would ask this question.  This is not a problem I’ve ever had.  I started working wood because I needed things made from wood.  I couldn’t afford to buy them ready-made, and in many cases I couldn’t have bought them at all.  My woodworking skills have developed as my household needs have changed.  I make things that I need, or that my family needs.  Very seldom will I go and make something just to make it.

So my question in return is “Why do you want to work with wood at all?”

Woodworking is a very rewarding craft, and it is endlessly useful to be able to take out a few tools what you need out of a piece of wood.  But if you don’t need any of the things you are making, then you are going to get discouraged pretty quickly.  You’ll drop woodworking and move on to some other hobby that is more immediately rewarding.

I think that the best beginner woodworking project is whatever you happen to need most at the moment.  If you need a birdhouse or a picnic table, then by all means make that.  Or if what you really need is a desk or even a chest of drawers, then that’s what you should try to make.  It may be very difficult, and it may require tools and skills you don’t yet have.  But at the end you will not only have something you can actually use, but you will have gained tools and skills that you can use again and again.

Need is a great motivator to get something done.  If you start on a project but don’t really need to get it done, your motivation will evaporate the moment the project becomes too difficult.  Woodworking can be incredibly frustrating, especially right at first.  But if you actually need what you’re building, you’ll find a way to persevere and get it done.

I started working by building tree forts with my brothers, salvaging wood and even nails from an old barn, and trying to cut boards to length with a very dull handsaw.  I did that because I wanted a tree fort and couldn’t get one any other way.  It wasn’t exactly a need, but I wanted it badly enough to work at it.  After I graduated from college, I drove by the old homestead, and some of my work was still there, a few boards nailed way up in the tree.

As a grown-up, I started working wood in earnest when I made some garden boxes.  I made them because my wife and I like to grow things.  Then I started making bookshelves because my particle-board bookshelves from Walmart were collapsing under the weight of actual books.

Shelf for Church 7-08 3

Eventually I started making wooden spoons to use in our kitchen, and now I make them to sell.  I have made step stools to reach high shelves.  I have made beds to sleep on.  I have made a dining table to eat at.  I have made screen doors and rebuilt whole porches.  And I have made more bookshelves.

I think a bookcase is a great first project.  The construction is straightforward, and even if you don’t have a lot of books, the finished product is endlessly useful.  So are wooden crates or other boxes for storage.  In the classic woodworking book The Joiner and Cabinet Maker, the first project is a shipping crate nailed together out of dimensional lumber.

But if you are really serious about this woodworking thing, then one of your most urgent needs is a workbench.  A workbench is a great first project because it can be built pretty roughly and still be perfectly usable.  It just needs to be heavy and stiff, and it should have a good bench vise or two.

Indoor Shop Workbench 2016

But before you go out and invest in a lot of wood and hardware, make a small investment in knowledge first.  Learn the features of a good, usable workbench—the size, dimensions, and features—so that you can build your first workbench as well as you can. Read what Chris Schwarz has to say about workbenches—he will warn you away from a lot of common pitfalls.   You can build a fully functional workbench using a tape measure, a circular saw, a drill, and some clamps.

Once you have a workbench, you’re going to want a handplane to flatten and smooth the top.  I recommend a vintage Stanley jack plane to begin with.

That also means getting sharpening equipment—coarse, medium, and fine—to keep the blade sharp.  I cannot write about woodworking for long without talking about sharpening.  It is a practice and a skill that is central to every successful woodworking project.


Learning to sharpen your tools is the most important skill to acquire as a beginning woodworker.  Dull tools are discouraging and downright dangerous to use.  But sharp tools are a pleasure to cut with.  If you don’t want to get discouraged in working wood, learn to sharpen.

There are a myriad sharpening systems for woodworking tools.  Which one works best?  They all work just fine, if you buy good materials.  Which one is easiest to use?  They all have their advantages and their drawbacks?  Which one is cheapest?  They all cost good money.  Just don’t get caught in the trap of I’m-not-getting-good-results-so-I-need-a-different-system.  If you’re not getting good results, it’s skill that you’re lacking.  The techniques for getting a razor-sharp edge are nearly identical with every system.  Do some research on different sharpening media, pick a system, and stick with it until you get good results consistently.

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How to Start Working Wood (part 1), What Tools Should You Get First?

“I want to get into woodworking.  What tools should I start with?”

I’ve heard this question in internet discussion groups a lot.  There’s no one right answer, but it’s gotten me thinking about what advice I would give to somebody who wants/needs to make things out of wood but has few tools and little skill to begin with.

A lot of us began so far back in the past that we have forgotten how little we had when we began, which makes it hard to give novices advice.  Most exchanges end up sounding like this:

Novice: “So, if you had to start all over from scratch, which tools would you…”

Expert: “ALL OF THEM!”

Yet all of us who work wood began somewhere.  Most of us began with just a few tools of our own.  There were some who learned basic skills in shop class.  A few lucky ones began in somebody else’s fully-outfitted wood shop.  But most of us began with very few basic tools, and we built our toolkits and skill sets a little bit at a time.

So here is the most basic set of tools I can think of to start you on your woodworking adventure:

  1. You need a way to measure the wood and lay out cuts. Most of us use a tape measure and a combination square to begin with. A pencil will mark rough cuts, but use a knife—even a utility knife—to mark out precise cuts.
  2. You need a way to cut the wood. I started with a circular saw and a dull handsaw. People also start with miter saws and table saws.  I do recommend a sharp handsaw to begin with.
  3. You need a way to attach pieces of wood to each other. I started with a hammer and nails, and screws and a drill. Eventually you will move on to more sophisticated methods and even proper joinery, but you can do a lot with nails and screws.
  4. You need a way to hold pieces of wood steady as you work with them. I started with a couple of bar clamps. If I had it to do over again, I would get four pipe clamps and the necessary lengths of pipe.
  5. You need a way to apply a finish. Rattle cans of lacquer or polyurethane are a good place to start. They’re not cheap in the long run, but they’re pretty foolproof.  You’ll want some fine sandpaper for sanding between coats.  Paint is also a good option for finishing your first projects.
  6. You need a space in which to work the wood, and something to put the wood on while you work it. Most people start with a pair of sawhorses. Soon you will want a real workbench.  Garages, backyards, driveways, basements, decks, sheds, and even spare rooms make good workspaces to begin with.

These tools are often enough for the simplest woodworking projects, and with some ingenuity they can be used to create surprisingly complex objects.

However, just having tools isn’t enough.  You also need to know how to use them.  In other words, you don’t just need tools; you need knowledge.

Hayward Book Set

We live in an information age where “just Google it” has become the standard way of conveying information.  But I don’t think the internet is the place to start learning how to work wood.  Instead, try this:

  1. Take Classes. After my first couple of screw-together-construction-lumber projects, I took four days of classes during which I learned how to cut joinery with hand tools, how to sharpen tools, and how to make some basic items that actually looked nice. I also learned what hand tools I needed to start working wood in earnest, and the teachers helped me develop good technique in using basic tools.  Whether you take a formal class or just get an experienced woodworker to show you the ropes, you can learn skills most efficiently in person from an expert.  You may have to pay for the experience, but a class can teach you more in a week than you can learn in years of trial-and-error on your own.
  2. Read Books and Magazines. I learned a lot about different kinds of woodworking from books I borrowed or bought, and from magazines that I subscribed to. There are some dumb ideas that appear in books and magazines, but they are fewer and farther apart than they are on the internet.  Printed material ordinarily goes through an editorial process before publication—an editor (often more than one) reads the material over carefully, double-checks everything for accuracy, and tries to make everything as clear as possible.  Plus, once you own a book or a magazine, it’s yours.  You can go back to it after a decade or two if you like.  And good woodworking techniques don’t go out of date—if a method worked thirty years ago, it will work today.
  3. Watch Internet Videos. There is some good instruction available for free (as well as a few subscription services) on the internet. Just remember that you get what you pay for.  In my experience, many internet woodworking videos are made by people who are much better at videography than they are at working wood.  There are a few internet gurus who are genuinely worth following, but they have an established reputation built on actual achievement—they consistently build good wooden objects.  Usually they also write books, teach classes, and/or contribute to magazines.  At their best, internet videos can be an excellent supplement to information that you’ve already gotten elsewhere.

Finally, while I’m on the subject of information, let me warn you against one big pitfall: information overload.  Watching woodworking videos will not make you a woodworker.

There comes a point at which you have to stop reading magazines or watching videos and just start working wood.  The best way—the only way, actually—to learn woodworking is to put your tools to the wood and start doing it.

Posted in Wood and Woodwork | 4 Comments

Fill Gaps and Fix Cracks with This Simple, Superglue Inlay

Every woodworker needs to fill holes in wood.  Sometimes wood putty will do, but I prefer to turn flaws like knot holes, bug holes, and cracks into decorative touches.  A friend of mine who is a turner showed me this simple, three-step process that turns flaws into features.

1. Fill the hole with the granulated inlay material.

Dining Table Build 7-2016 sm

Fill it loosely; don’t pack it in too tightly.  It is best to mound the granules up a little bit over the hole.  A small spoon or even a toothbrush can help put the granules in the right place.

2. Flood the filled hole with regular superglue.  Make sure all the granules are totally saturated.

Dining Table Build 7-2016 sm

Now let it dry completely.  This doesn’t take very long, but if you’re in a hurry you can heat the surface with a hairdryer or heat gun, which will cure the superglue almost instantly.

3. Plane, scrape, and/or sand the filled hole flush with the surrounding surface.

Dining Table Build 7-2016 sm

Now go ahead and apply the finish of your choice.

I have used this technique on tables, boxes, wooden spoon handles, and even tobacco pipes.

Pipe #39 Briar Diamond Shank Billiard 12-2015

Here are some additional tips for using this inlay technique effectively:


The superglue (a.k.a. cyanoacrylate glue, or CA glue for short) needs to be the regular, thin kind.  This doesn’t work with the “gel” type.  Do be careful not to get it on your fingers because it doesn’t come off easily.  It’s not a bad idea to wear gloves.

There is an endless list of materials you can use as a fill. You might have success with some of the following:

  • Sawdust–it’s plentiful around the shop and comes in many different colors; walnut or other dark woods result in a lovely dark brown color.
  • Crushed glass or stone, such as jet (black), turquoise (blue), malachite (green), or coral (white, red, or pink).
  • Metal filings such as copper, brass, or aluminum.  (Not powdered metal–you want grain sizes that you can’t possibly breathe in; powdered metals can be highly toxic.)
  • Organic material such as dry coffee grounds.

The only requirement is that it not be a fine powder.  If the granules are too fine, the superglue won’t penetrate.  But if they are too coarse, you won’t get a smooth surface when you sand it down.  The ideal grain size is similar to table salt.  Look for “inlay powder” if you’re buying online.

Additional Tips

For holes deeper than about 1/8″, it is best to fill them in two stages.  I fill deep voids most of the way with sawdust or another cheap fill, apply the superglue, and then put my decorative fill on top. It saves on materials, and the result is more stable.

Be sure the surface is already planed down and ready for final surfacing before you start.  The superglue doesn’t penetrate very deeply, so if you have to plane down the surface after filling the holes, you are likely to remove your inlay entirely, and you’ll have to start all over again.

Occasionally, superglue can slightly discolor the wood around the hole.  (It’s happened to me with cherry before.)  So don’t overdo it on the superglue.  Apply only as much as you need to saturate the granules–no more.

Some cracks/holes may be too narrow for the size granules you are using. In that case, use an awl or a knife point to carefully widen the gap until you can fill it neatly.

If you are filling a void that runs all the way into the edge of the wood, use masking tape to keep the fill in along the edge.  Then, once the superglue has been applied to the top and has dried, remove the tape and flood the edge with more superglue.  Then sand everything flush.  Inlay that runs through into the edge looks especially good when applied carefully.

Is It Durable?

In my experience, the resulting inlay is extremely durable.  The surrounding wood is more likely to deteriorate than is the inlay.  I have never yet had one fall out or fail.



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The Gift of Time: 8 Ways to Use Extra Time in the Shop

Time is the greatest of gifts.  None of us knows how much of it we will have over our lifetime, and once it’s gone we can never get it back.  That’s why I’m not much bothered by the prospect of spending the next few weeks at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  (Nobody in our family is sick, but my university will probably move our courses online for the next few weeks, and the kids’ activities outside the house are being curtailed.)  The pandemic is giving me something I rarely get, especially at this time of year: extra time at home.

The question, though, is what to do with the extra time?  It would be so easy to squander it by binging TV shows or surfing the internet–which is what I’m afraid a lot of people will do with their extra time at home this month.  I intend to spend more time playing outdoors with my kids and going on long walks with my wife, but I’ll also be spending some extra time at the workbench.

If you’re a woodworker and find yourself stuck at home this month and next, here are some ideas for  making the best of your extra time in the shop during the next few weeks:

1. Clean Up

Let’s start with the obvious one.  If you’re anything like me, you probably have scraps to be sorted, hardware to be put away, garbage to be taken out, and nooks to be swept out.  But I’m going to make a counterintuitive suggestion here: don’t spend all your extra shop time cleaning, unless your shop has just become completely dysfunctional.  Use at least some of your extra shop time to actually make something, too.

2. Finish Something

Most of us have half-finished or almost-completed projects sitting around the shop, just waiting for us to muster the willpower to get them done.  Pick one of your incomplete projects and get it completed.

3. Replace “Temporary” Storage and Fixtures

You know that makeshift lumber and/or tool storage you slapped together–gosh, how many years ago was that now?  Or maybe you put together a “temporary” workbench one time, and you’ve been fighting its limitations ever since?  And how about that inadequate lighting over your workstations?  Your eyesight isn’t getting any better, you know.  Now is a good time to put your workshop right: tear out the makeshift, temporary fixtures and replace them with something truly permanent–something you will actually enjoy working with for the next few decades.

4. Use Those Shorts

Practically every woodworker I know has a pile of offcuts that are too short for most projects but too nice to just throw away.  We always think, “This would make a nice box.” Okay, great.  Make some boxes or other small objects out of the offcuts you’ve been saving.  Or make some wooden spoons or spatulas out of the hardwood offcuts–which is what I do with practically all of mine.

5. Do That Special Project

While you’re going through your lumber stash, you will likely come across that extra-nice piece of wood that you’ve been “saving for a special project.”  Perhaps now is the time to figure out what that special project is going to be so the wood you’ve been saving can finally see the light of day.

6. Catch up on Deferred Maintenance

Most of the tools we use require some regular maintenance, but often we put it off because we (rightly) prefer building things to maintaining our tools.  But maintenance can only be put off so long before our negligence beings to affect the quality of our work.  Whether it’s replacing worn parts (how are those bandsaw tires?), lubricating moving parts, or resharpening blades (how are those jointer/planer blades?), or whether it’s just cleaning the accumulated sawdust out of all the nooks and crannies, you could probably spend a whole day just tuning up your tools.

7. Practice a New Skill

Most of us have joints that we avoid putting into our pieces because we haven’t yet learned to cut them with confidence.  Pick a joint–half-blind dovetails, mortise and tenon–and practice it on some scraps.  Or pick a basic technique like four-squaring a board or sawing consistently to a line. Do two or three a day for the next three weeks, and you’ll be amazed at how much your skills will improve.

8. Teach Someone

If you’ve been meaning to bring a family member into your workspace and show him or her how to work wood, take a little time to do that.  One of the biggest impediments to teaching someone the trade is time–you have to set aside shop time for the teaching, and you have to be patient while the other person practices.  So if you don’t have to hurry through a lesson or through practice, you can not only pass on your skills, but you can also enjoy spending time together.

Posted in Kids, Musings, sharpening, skills, storage, teaching | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments