The Evolution of a Display Table

What do you do when you start making more spoons than you can sell or give away?  You start selling them.  But not just anybody will pay $10 or $15 for a hand-carved spoon.  You have to get them in front of the kinds of people who are most likely to buy them.

Over the last few years, I’ve set up a display table at a few local craft markets.  I don’t do this a lot, maybe three or four times a year. But my display table has evolved quite a bit as I’ve tried out different things and found out what works for me and what doesn’t.

This is my very first display table:

Show Table Little Flower 2011

There was a lot of square footage to cover, so my product was pretty spread-out, sorted by type and price.  I put a photo album of my other work out.  And I had a tool chest with some of my tools so I could demonstrate my work and show off some of the tools I used to make spoons and other things.

It wasn’t a bad first set-up, and I sold a few items.  My price-points were right for my local market. (I could probably get double for my work in bigger, more craft-conscious cities.)  The tablecloth was the right sort of visual background.

But there were some problems, too. There was too much empty space on the table, and the product looked picked-over from the get-go.  Everyone loves coming to a full display; only bargain-basement types will pay attention to a depleted display, and bargain-hunters aren’t my target market.  Also, the album and tools were a distraction; they drew attention away from the things actually for sale.  And frankly, I don’t like taking commissions from strangers, so I shouldn’t have even shown work that I would want to make again on commission.

After a couple unsuccessful displays at various places, I found a venue at a quarterly  Night Market the Mobile Museum of Art.  The clientele was exactly what I was looking for: savvy people who are serious about cooking and value high-quality, handmade utensils–and are willing to pay a fair price for them!

Show Table MMoA 12-2014 - - 2

This display was more successful.  A small table enabled me to come around and talk easily with potential customers.  (I don’t like having to talk across a table.)  I set out my most attractive items within reach of customers, and I covered the available space with my product.  I tried to make my vertical display more consistent–I salvaged the boxes from junk piles around the neighborhood, and my wife placed Mason jars in them to organize the space.  (She’s smart!)  I also added some business cards.

It was a much better set-up, and I sold significantly more product.  But the arrangement still needed to be tweaked a little bit.

Night Market Table Mobile Museum of Art 12-2015

My most recent display was by far the most successful.  First, my wife and I had begun to notice which types of product were the best sellers, so we brought a lot of them.  (Large spoons and wok spatulas are the most popular.)  I added a couple matched sets, and I added my thumb-ring page holders.  It’s important to have a variety of price points, and I like to have items that are affordable for everybody.

Most importantly, we turned the handles of the spoons toward the customers.  If somebody picks up an item, there’s about a 50% chance that he or she (usually she!) will buy it.  As spoons and spatulas are purchased, we replace them from the jars in the back so the table always looks full.

Night Market Table Mobile Museum of Art 12-2015

The business cards are buried in the center of the table.  I don’t know that I have ever made a substantial sale that I could attribute primarily to a business card.  So I don’t push them.  I want potential customers to pick up a spoon, not a business card.  But everybody has a business card, so I have one, too.

Night Market Table Mobile Museum of Art 12-2015

I’m sure there are a few more ways I could tweak my display to be even more effective, but it’s come a long way.

Posted in Woodenware | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Is It Okay to Copy?

Should artisans avoid copying the work of other artisans?  Is it ethical to use another person’s design in your work, especially if you are selling it?

These questions and ones like them come up regularly in the craft world.  For example, in an impassioned blog post at the American Craft Council site, Harriete Berman says that, in general, artisans should sell only original work, not copies of other people’s work.  She urges stores and galleries not to sell “derivative work” and that “designers should not be surfing the web for ideas.”  She especially has in mind unscrupulous artisans who are looking to make cheap knock-offs for a quick buck.

On the other hand, carver and turner Robin Wood writes in a recent blog post that he encourages novices to copy excellent work in order to learn the craft, though he also says it’s annoying to see near-copies of his own work offered as if his design were generic.  He allows that his own designs are not absolutely unique but are based on historic designs, but he also maintains that his designs are identifiably his.  (If they weren’t, why would anybody attempt to profit by copying them?)

Pipe #29 Bodark Billiard 2014- - 1

I made this billiard pipe in imitation of many other billiards I’ve seen.

Going even further, if you read a few of the critiques of first and second pipes posted over  at Pipemakers Forum, the experienced pipe makers will often suggest that a novice pipe maker start with classic shapes, such as the billiard, the poker, and the bulldog, and they will urge new makers to try to copy good examples of those shapes.  Anybody who can execute those shapes well (and I certainly can’t, yet) is well on his or her way to being an excellent pipe maker.

But where is the line?  Legally, we can consider intellectual property laws, copyrights, and trademarks–these are serious legal issues that professional and semi-professional artisans need to know about.  However, the health of a craft and the creative process must look beyond legal questions for guidance.  (Not all legal actions are moral actions; on the other hand, some actions that are moral in themselves may not be legal in certain circumstances.)  If we persistently discourage artisans from imitating each other’s work, we will kill our crafts within a generation, for imitation is at the heart of learning handicrafts.

To begin with, I hope we can agree that forgery is unacceptable.  We should not tolerate one person offering his or her own work as if it were made by somebody else.  In Academia, we call that plagiarism, and it happens across all the arts.  An article at the Poetry Foundation, for example, reveals a disturbing trend in the contemporary poetry scene: up-and-coming poets will sometimes take another person’s poem and publish it under his or her own name, essentially stealing a good poem from another poet.

I hope, too, that we could accept full disclosure as standard practice.  If you make a billiard pipe, call it a billiard–don’t claim it’s an original design.  If you make a chair in the style of Chippendale, call it that.    A reproduction of an existing piece should be labeled as such.  And if you’re inspired by a design you found on the internet, then give credit where credit is due.  If you’re not sure whether a design is original to a single artisan or whether it’s a traditional design, you haven’t done enough research.

As a teacher of writing, I have to help students see the difference between legitimate fact-finding and plagiarism.  My guideline is the same as I give my students for determining whether a certain fact is “common knowledge” or whether it needs a citation: if you find the same information in three different, credible sources, and none of them acknowledge a source for it, then consider it common knowledge.  Similarly, if you see the same design produced by several respected makers, it’s probably a traditional design.

I might also note that Thomas Chippendale is dead, as is whoever first designed the billiard pipe.  You can stay out of a lot of trouble if you only copy from dead people.  That’s what we mean by “traditional design.”

Beyond that, though, I think that novice artisans don’t copy enough.  We live in an age that prizes originality and uniqueness–at least, we say we do–to the extent that we often dismiss old patterns and traditional designs, however well executed.  But somebody who has never learned how to reproduce another person’s designs has not yet learned the craft, just as a musician who cannot play a Mozart piece has not yet learned to play well.  But once that person can imitate a master, he or she is well on the way to developing a unique style.

Posted in Musings, Wood and Woodwork | 5 Comments

On Spokeshaves

When I took my first woodworking course at the Heritage School of Woodworking in Texas, one of the hand tools on the “essential tools” list was a spokeshave. It was the only “essential tools” list I have seen that includes a spokeshave.  Most woodworkers, I think, consider the spokeshave to be a marginal, optional tool–at best, a specialty tool with very limited uses.

Not me.  My spokeshaves are essential tools in my tool chest, and they get used on nearly every project.

Kinds of Spokeshaves

A spokeshave is just a very short hand plane with handles on each side rather than front-and-back.  There are essentially two different spokeshave designs, and many variations on each.

Spokeshaves 12-2015

First, the “low-angle” spokeshave looks like this. This is, so far as I can tell, the older of the two designs, and the vintage ones are all made with wooden bodies.  The modern one pictured above is made by Veritas and has an aluminum body.

The sole of this spokeshave is the blade itself.  To use it, the spokeshave is rocked forward just a few degrees.  Thus, the angle at which the cutting edge meets the wood is about 30 degrees.

Spokeshaves 12-2015

This relatively low angle is ideal for cutting end-grain, but on long grain it can result in significant tear-out.  The especially tight mouth helps control (but does not eliminate) this problem.  You can barely see the mouth of the spokeshave above; it’s the thin, black line at the bottom of the shiny blade.

Spokeshaves 12-2015

The second kind of spokeshave has a body made from metal, and the blade is held at 45 degrees to the sole of the tool, just like on a regular hand plane.  The higher angle reduces tear-out, but it can be slightly harder to use on end-grain.

Many of them have thumbscrews to adjust the depth of cut.  Others have no adjusters and are set with hammer taps (which isn’t as difficult as it sounds).  Beginners usually find it easier to use one with thumbscrew adjusters.

Using a Spokeshave

From the name, you can probably guess that the spokeshave was originally developed for shaping the spokes of wooden wheels.  (I assume that’s the case, anyway.  Unless there’s a patent, the origins of hand tools are usually very obscure.)  Indeed, spokeshaves excel at shaping gentle curves while following the grain of the wood, both of which are necessary for shaping wheel spokes.
Beautiful Waste Fall 2015Similarly, I use my spokeshaves for shaping the handles of wooden spoons, and for other curved work.

I also find the spokeshave useful for making small chamfers and relieving sharp corners, especially in places where end-grain is concerned.

In use, the spokeshave can be either pulled or pushed.  My usual inclination is to pull it–all other things being equal–but it is best to become equally adept at both moves.  Sometimes a quick reversal in the wood grain necessitates that I push the spokeshave on one part of the workpiece and pull it on another.

Holding a spokeshave seems intuitive: it has two handles, so you grip it in your fists like a bicycle handle, right?

Well, you can.  But you should keep your thumbs resting on the body of the tool rather than wrapped around the handles.  There are also a couple other grips to master.  Some spokeshaves come with somewhat shorter handles and are designed for a three-finger grip.  The thumbs and forefingers are wrapped around the body of the tool, and the other three fingers grip the handle.  This grip ensures very precise control of the tool.

Spoon Making Tutorial Schuler 1-2014 - - 07A spokeshave can also be used one-handed, as you would use a paring knife.  This grip is especially good for shaving small, irregularly-shaped objects.  You can use your thumb to pull the workpiece into the cut, but try not to shave your thumb.

Choosing a Spokeshave

One of the most popular old spokeshaves is the Stanley 151A, which has been imitated, copied, and cloned by a number of modern companies, such as Record, Kunz, and Anant.  They all have the same basic features: a cast-iron body and a pair of thumbscrew depth adjusters.

Spokeshaves 12-2015The black one shown above is a vintage Stanley; the red one is a modern Anant.  These spokeshaves can work reasonably well for shaping gentle curves as long as the blade is kept very sharp.  However, I find them heavy and somewhat cumbersome to use.

Spokeshaves 12-2015

Furthermore, the imitations of the old Stanley (including the modern version made by Stanley) are generally not as good.  The adjusters are sloppy and rattle around.  You can also see above that the mouth of the imitation is more open, resulting in greater tear-out on reversing grain. The soles are also fairly big, making it difficult to shave a tighter radius.  But if you’re looking for an entry-level spokeshave and know how to sharpen a woodworking tool, then you might consider a vintage Stanley 151A.

But if you are going to use a spokeshave frequently, I recommend moving up the price-scale and looking for a precisely-machined tool.  I love my Veritas spokeshaves, but there are a number of other good options out there, such as the ones made by Lie Nielsen, which are especially suited to smaller hands and/or the three-finger grip mentioned above.  These tools are a pleasure to hold and a pleasure to use.

Posted in Wood and Woodwork | 1 Comment

Simple, Easy Shooting Board

Those of us who work wood primarily with hand tools don’t rely on very many jigs.  But there’s one jig that every hand-tool woodworker should have close at hand: a shooting board.

A shooting board, if you aren’t familiar with the device, is a simple jig for a hand plane.  There’s nothing very special about mine; it took me about an hour to make.

Shooting Board in Use 2015

The plane is set on its side, and the workpiece is set up against a fence that is precisely 90 degrees to the path of the plane.  The result is a perfect right angle on the workpiece.

Shooting Board in Use 2015

Here I’m planing a square end on a piece of spalted pecan.

Shooting boards come in many sizes and configurations.  Some have fancy features that allow one to plane 45 degree miters, for example.  Mine is of the plain variety.  It does one thing and does it very well.

Briar Magnets 1-2015 - - 1

It can handle even very small workpieces, like this little scrap of briar wood that became a refrigerator magnet.

Building it was simple.  It is built on a piece of 3/4″ thick fiberboard with two pieces of 1/4″ plywood stacked on top.  There is a cleat screwed to the bottom that hooks onto the edge of the bench, keeping the shooting board steady in use.  The fence is a piece of hardwood screwed to the base.  To get it precisely square, I attached it as precisely as I could and then used a rabbet plane to trim the fence until it was exactly square.  It took a few test cuts, checking and rechecking with my square, to ensure everything was just right.

The exact dimensions of a shooting board aren’t critical.  I just has to be long enough to support a plane and a reasonable-sized workpiece.  Mine about 11″ wide and 18″ long, all told.

The most difficult part of getting a shooting board to work well is finding the right hand plane to use with it.  I prefer a longer plane, and I find that my Stanley #6 is just right.  More importantly, however, is that the side of the plane’s body is exactly square to the plane’s sole.  If it’s not, the cut won’t be square.  Good modern planes (like those made by Lee Valley or Lie Nielsen) have sides that are square to their soles.  Vintage planes, however, are hit-and-miss.  So if you have an old plane that you’d like to use on a shooting board, check it with a reliable square first.

This is the second shooting board I’ve made.  I’ve had it about a year, and so far it’s working just fine.

Posted in Wood and Woodwork | 6 Comments

A New Door, a New Bed, a New Daughter

My summer ended with big woodworking plans for the coming year.  (Most people’s year begins on January first, but being a professor, I think as much in school years as in calendar years, so my year effectively begins in mid-August.)  I was going to replace the crummy plywood doors in my house with handmade wooden doors.  I was going to build my wife a big shelving unit with drawers and cubbyholes for the kids’ school supplies.  I was going to practice and improve on my pipe making.  And I was going to get that lathe put together and learn to turn.

None of that has happened because, as they say, “life happens.”  But for me, life has happened in a very surprising, very concrete way:  In September, we began the process of adopting a child.

You probably have an image of adoption in your head already: young, caring parents holding a baby or maybe a toddler, probably of a different race or nationality.  You’ve got that image now, right?

Okay, forget it.  That’s not at all what our adoption has looked like.

Our newest daughter (Yes, a fourth girl!  My poor son…), whom I will call N, is a college student, and she actually looks a little like my now-next-oldest daughter K. Yes, they are wearing wood-shaving-crowns in the picture below.

Community First Austin with N & K Fall 2015I first met N when she enrolled in one of my classes at the university.  It’s a long story–too long to tell here–but over the last two years, as we came to know more of N’s story, and as she spent time in our home, she became a real part of our family.  She needed a dad, and if anybody was going to be her dad, it was going to be me.  Eventually we all–N, my wife, and I–decided that a formal adoption was in order.  She would move in with us while she continued her schooling, and we would make her a real and permanent member of our family.

Which brings me back to my woodworking plans for this year.  A new daughter needs a new bed, and a college-age daughter needs a room with a door on it.  (And a big sister with little siblings needs a door that locks.)  So my wife began cleaning out the back entryway that she had been using for her home office.  We got rid of excess furniture, downsized our file cabinet capacity, and threw a LOT of stuff away.

Then we began work turning it into a bedroom.

The Floor Scrapers

The pine floor was in desperate need of refinishing, so the first job was to scrape and sand the floor.  We all took turns with the card scrapers, which worked really well taking off the high spots and the spots with especially damaged/degraded finish.  It was still slow going, and we used a lot of sandpaper, too.  (May I HIGHLY recommend getting a Klingspor bargain box of sandpaper?)  By the end of it, N (below left) was adept at using and sharpening a card scraper.

Floor Scraping Fall 2015 Floor Scraping Fall 2015

 But while the ladies were scraping and sanding the floor, I was working on the next step: a door.

The Second Half of the Half-Door

Two years ago, when the room was an office, I had installed a half-door that allowed my wife to keep an eye on the kids while also keeping the kids out of her papers and sewing supplies.  (Not that it actually kept the kids out for long, but it was a nice idea anyway.)  So instead of pulling that door out and starting over again, I decided to built the other half of the door and attach them with a sliding bolt.

The challenge here was to match the original door as closely as possible so that, once the wood on the new half ages, it will look like it and the old half were built at the same time.

Half Door Second Half Fall 2015I built it out of planed-down 2X6s from the home center.  (I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the quality of lumber I can get out of the 2X6s at one of the local home centers here–if I’m willing to be picky and dig for the good stuff.)  They’re joined with drawbored mortises and tenons.

I’m getting a lot better at making mortise and tenon joints.  I chopped all the mortises straight, and all but one of these six joints went right together without having to trim any of the tenons.

The panels are plywood, which I thoroughly dislike using.  I wouldn’t have used it at all, except that I needed to match the panels on the bottom half of the door.

The original half-door had a piece of walnut inlaid on the top with our last name and the year the door was built.  I decided to do something similar on the second half as well.

Half Door Second Half Inlay Fall 2015

Once the door was hung, we put down several coats of polyurethane on the floor.  Then we kept the door shut for the better part of a week, occasionally adding another coat, until the fumes mostly dissipated.

The Bed

This was the most challenging part of turning the room into a bedroom.  Because of the position of the doors, there is only one corner of the room suitable for a bed.  But a regular bed wouldn’t fit there because of the placement of the A/C vent in the floor.  So we decided that a half-lofted bed would do nicely.

My other daughters are very proud of their triple-decker bunk bed, so I decided that my now-oldest daughter N should have a bed that looked a little like that one.

Bed Frame for N Fall 2015

N got to watch her bed frame being made, and she even helped out here and there by holding parts and sweeping up chips and shavings.  (That’s how all apprentices start!)

Bed Frame for N Fall 2015

Like the other bunk bed, N’s bed is made of 2X6s.  The headboard is shiplapped 2X stock, and the rails are dovetailed into the posts and “pegged” with a carriage bolt, which will allow the bed to be easily disassembled when it finally comes time to move it.  The mattress is supported by more 2Xs set on battens screwed into the insides of the rails.

Bed Frame for N Fall 2015

It’s not my best mortise-and-tenon job, but the joints will hold.  N asked me to leave a few tool marks and layout lines visible, so I did.  For example, I slightly over-cut the sides of the dovetail mortise here.  I also carved her name, my name, and the date on the back of the headboard.

Bed Frame for N Fall 2015

I got everything finished just in time.  The semester was drawing to a close, and N and I had just applied some wax to the bed frame, when it came time for her to move into her new home.

Welcome home, my newest eldest daughter!

Posted in Furniture, Home Improvement, Kids, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Beautiful Waste

I’ve been making a lot of shavings lately, and when working with hand tools, I find that sometimes the waste products are just as pretty as the finished products.

Beautiful Waste Fall 2015


A chaotic pile of pecan shavings becomes a collage of curly shapes surrounding the tools that made them.

Beautiful Waste Fall 2015

Wide ribbons of jointer plane shavings contrast with tiny shavings from the spokeshave.

Beautiful Waste Fall 2015

Plump curls of poplar shavings frame the stool seat from which they were cut.

Beautiful Waste Fall 2015

The waste from a drawknife is angular and sharp.  I wouldn’t exactly call it a chip, and I wouldn’t exactly call it a shaving.  To my eye, it looks a little like a reptile’s claw.

Beautiful Waste Fall 2015

The spokeshave, when making chamfers, makes what my young daughters call “doll’s hair.”

I’m always a little sad to discard my best shavings.  But at least I can save a few of them in photographs.  Even waste products can be beautiful.

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How to Ship a Wooden Spoon

If you sell your woodwork online at all, there’s a little challenge that you probably didn’t think about until you sold your first item: how to package it for shipping.  And if you’ve ever received an item in the mail that was damaged due to careless packaging, you know how important packing is.

I’ve been selling my wooden spoons online for some time now, and after trying several different methods of packing them, I hit on something that protects the spoon, and that is compact and affordable.

Shipping a Spoon 2015 - - 1I begin with a section of an old cardboard box.  I cut the box so as to form a cardboard sleeve that will fit into a padded envelope.  My goal is to fit everything into a 12″X12″ package, which is the maximum length/width dimensions for standard shipping at the US Postal Service.  An 11″ spoon easily fits across the diagonal of a 12″X12″ package.

Shipping a Spoon 2015 - - 2The box flaps are left on, and they get folded over the spoons’ bowls, which are the most prone to breaking during shipping.  The cardboard is then taped closed around the spoons, which are now surrounded by 2-4 layers of cardboard.  Don’t forget to include some care directions, contact information, and one or two business cards!  (You can find a copy of my care directions under the “Woodenware” tab on this blog.)

Shipping a Spoon 2015 - - 3The cardboard sleeve gets slipped into a padded envelope, which cost less than a dollar apiece.  The only other expense is for the packing tape.  I can get three or four spoons and spatulas safely packed in an envelope like this.  Now it’s ready to go off to the post office.  Paying the extra to insure the package and get a tracking number is a good idea.  It costs me about $7 to ship to the continental USA this way.

Since I’ve started packing spoons like this, they’ve all arrived safely.

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Making a Thumb-Ring Page Holder

If you’re a reader and a woodworker, you’ve probably seen pictures of them on social media.  You don’t know what they’re called, but your book-loving friends probably want you to make them some.  I’ve heard them called by several names: “book buddy,” “book bridge,” “thumb-ring-b00k-page-holder,” or some other combination thereof.

imageThey come in a number of different shapes and a few different sizes, but the idea is always the same: a wooden ring with “wings” slips onto your thumb, allowing you to hold open the pages of a book (usually a thick, new paperback) with less strain on your hand and forearm.

These objects are small and simple.  They should be easy to make, right?

Kind of.

Making one that works is not difficult.  Making one that’s comfortable and works well is a little more challenging.  Here’s how I do it.

Stock Selection and Shaping

The overall dimensions of your page holder can vary.  Something between 2 1/2″ and 3″ long is about right.  Your stock should be about 1/2″ thick.  Many woods will do, but I’d recommend something relatively easy to work, such as walnut or beech.  There’s not a whole lot of room for error on a piece this small.  If your wood has some interesting color variation, all the better.  I used some claro walnut I had on hand.

Page Holder 1You can get a lot of these things out of a single board, especially if you’re careful with layout.  I joint one edge of the board and use a sliding T-bevel, a ruler, and a pencil gauge to lay these out.  A pair of dividers might help, too.  I don’t know what the angles are.  I just played around with a couple prototypes until I got something that looked and felt right.  I set my T-bevel to that angle and saved the setting on a story-stick.

The first operation is to bore the holes.  Thumbs come in different sizes, but I find that most people like one of two sizes: large and small.  So I bore some with a 5/8″ Forsner bit and others with a 3/4″ Forsner bit.  Then I take the board to the bandsaw and cut out the pieces.

Page Holder 2

Reaming and Refining

Page Holder 3The next operation is to ream out the thumb hole.  If you look at your own thumb long enough, you may notice that it tapers toward its tip.  So I’ve found that the most comfortable shaped hole is also tapered.  I use a taper reamer that fits into a brace.  It leaves a somewhat rough surface, but it’s all I have at the moment.

Now I go to work on the outside surfaces.  The faces of the wood are already pretty smooth since I planed them down before I laid out the shapes.  I use a block plane to remove a few of the saw marks, and then I use a chisel to slightly hollow out each outside facet.  I suppose a half-round file or even a spindle sander could be helpful here.  But you use what you have at hand.

Page Holder 4The chisel creates a slight hollow that the spokeshave will then ride down into.  My low-angle spokeshave is very helpful here because I’m working all end-grain. That, and I’ll make any excuse to use a spokeshave.  It’s one of my favorite tools.

Page Holder 5 I finish up with a stiff card scraper, and then relieve all the sharp edges, inside and out.

A good dunking in Danish oil is all that’s required for a finish.

imageI can make a dozen or so in a couple hours, and they sell pretty well at the craft shows.  I price them at $5 apiece.  If you’re a woodworker looking to make a bit of extra cash, these are a good project.

If you’re a reader looking for a thumb-ring-page-holder, then support a local woodworker.  You can find many of these on Etsy or other similar online shops.  And of course, I’d be happy to sell you one, too. Just e-mail me at the address on the “About” page.

Posted in Build-Alongs, handicraft, Wood and Woodwork, Woodworking Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Take a Look at Living Woods

There was a time when American and British woodworkers didn’t know much about each other–something to do, I think, with being separated by 3,000 miles of open water and a common language.  But this is the 21st century.  The Digital Age.  The Age of Information.  Geographical distance isn’t the barrier to communication that it once was.

That’s why I think that you American woodworkers should take a look at Living Woods Magazine, published in Great Britain.  Living Woods is an eclectic magazine about every aspect of green wood crafts, from chainsaws and carving knives to woodland management and timber framing and even blacksmithing.  The magazine is light on ads and heavy on text and pictures.  The articles contain a lot of practical advice, but unlike most articles in American woodworking magazines, these articles also tell stories.

For example, in one article in the May/June issue (#36, pictured at right), Japanese woodworker Masashi Kutsuwa tells how he designed a collapsible shaving horse.  But instead of just giving step-by-step instructions on building it, he tells the story of his initial attempt to build it, and then explains each improvement he made on the design over several years.  (An added bonus is a big sidebar on building a table-top shaving horse, which clamps to any stable table.)  There are enough pictures that any enterprising woodworker could easily replicate the devices he describes, but that’s only part of the article’s value.  I came away from it not only with some ideas about building a shaving horse (some day!), but also with an idea of who the author is as a person and why he designed his shaving horse as he did.

Let me rant for a moment about American woodworking magazines. (Feel free to skip this paragraph.)  When I read articles on woodworking projects, I frequently get frustrated with the lack of context.  After four or five pages of step-by-step instructions, the articles still leave me wondering why the author made the design choices that he or she did.  Unless I want to build a copy of that exact piece of furniture (which I seldom do), I learn virtually nothing from the article that I could apply in projects of my own design.  Then sometimes the author of an unsigned article will refer to himself or herself in the first person, or even make reference to his or her home shop, while I haven’t the faintest idea who this person is or why I should care. Woodsmith is particularly bad about this.  None of their articles have a by-line.  Why do the editors allow their authors to say “I” if they won’t even tell me who they are?  Fine Woodworking articles are at least signed, but the authors seldom explain the reasons for design and joinery choices.  Popular Woodworking is measurably better, which is why I sill subscribe.  People matter, and that’s why I appreciate how Living Woods encourages authors to tell their stories.

And speaking of authors’ stories, I’ll have an article on spoon carving coming out in a future issue of Living Woods.  Editor Nick Gibbs says that he wants to give the magazine an international flavor, and my article is one small part of that big vision.  My article tells about how I take my woodworking with me when I travel, and it also includes some philosophical inquiry into the nature of traditions and innovations.  Don’t miss it.

Digital subscriptions to Living Woods Magazine are available, although for those of you Luddites who still insist on ink-and-paper, they are willing to ship internationally.  Just contact them and ask.  If you’d like to get a taste of the magazine before you subscribe, sign up for the monthly e-newsletter.  Thanks to the internet, it’s now possible to build a truly international community of woodworkers.  I hope to see you soon–in the USA, or England, or Italy, or Japan, or wherever people are working wood with their hands.

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On Failure

Every time a new woodworking magazine shows up in my mailbox, I am dazzled by a wide array of projects and techniques that promise to take my woodworking skills to the next level.  Yet there’s something missing in the usual lineup of woodworking articles: failure.

As woodworkers, we tend to learn from the successes of others, but we are left to learn from failures that are entirely our own.  In the spirit of rectifying that imbalance, I present to you several of my own woodworking failures–where I went wrong, what resulted, and how I ultimately dealt with the problem.

Dovetails and Cracks

Cracked Dovetailed Book Case 2013Dovetails are supposed to be shrinkage-safe joints.  They allow both boards to expand and contract with the seasons, so they rarely have trouble with wood-movement.

On the top of this bookshelf, however, a dovetail joint ended up causing a big crack right in the middle of the top board.  (Apologies for the grainy picture; I promise that the crack is clearly visible in person.)  I was building this shelf in a hurry, and I had just enough boards to finish the job.  When I first cut into the board that would become the top, I noticed that it was pretty wet, whereas the other boards were quite dry.  Well, I plunged ahead, even when driving my chisel into the wood to clear the waste from the joints expelled water from the wood!  I should have stopped.

Once I had the whole thing finished, installed, and loaded with books, I forgot about the top board being so wet–until one day I noticed that a wide crack had opened up in the top.  Of course the top had dried out and shrunk, but because it was dovetailed to a much drier board, the shrinkage had nowhere to go, so the wood split at its weakest point.

The bookshelf is still as sturdy as ever, and the cracks are fully contained, but every time I look at that top (on the rare occasions that books aren’t piled on top of it), I am reminded of the cost of haste.

Weak Legs

Shaker Writing Table for Grace 2-4-08 11One of my first big woodworking projects was this Shaker-style writing table made from home-center pine.  My tools were completely inadequate to the job, but somehow I got it done, and my wife used it as a desk for a number of years.

The fatal flaw was the joinery between the legs and the aprons. What were designed as drawbored mortise-and-tenon joints became pinned tongue-and-groove joints after I blew out the top end of nearly every mortise as I chopped it with a chisel.  So between the open ends of each “mortise” and the drawbore holes on each side, there just wasn’t enough wood surrounding all those holes to support the stresses of a table leg.  The legs weakened over several years (that’s my oldest daughter peeking into the lower corner of the picture–she’s now in second grade), and eventually the joints failed altogether.

I sadly discarded the legs and aprons, but I am keeping the top for now.  Maybe one day I’ll build sturdier legs for it.

Rotten Gate

Kennel Gate Failure 2015Living on the Gulf Coast, where we get enough annual rainfall to rival Seattle (no, really!), wood has a limited lifespan outdoors.  A couple years ago, however, I built a gate for the dog’s yard that I hoped would last good, long time.

It didn’t.

I carefully joined the pine 2X8s together with drawbored mortises and tenons.  I used a piece of a cattle panel for a center panel, so the cats could get in and out easily.  Then I painted the whole thing, hoping that the paint would prevent rotting for a few years.

As it happens, paint is just as good at keeping water in as it is at keeping it out.  The paint couldn’t possibly seal the water out of the joints, and when the rainwater did get into the joints, it just stayed there, rotting the gate from the inside out.

Kennel Gate Failure Detail 2015I don’t even remember if I had glued the joints too.  I probably didn’t, thinking that if the drawbore pins didn’t hold the joints together, glue wouldn’t either.  Well, no glue was going to hold up to this kind of water damage anyway.

I first noticed the joints beginning to weaken over the winter, and I knew the gate was doomed.  This spring, there was fungus growing on it.  Finally this summer, the whole thing collapsed, and I was forced to build a replacement.

This time, I determined to keep everything as weather-proof as possible.  I screwed together some treated lumber and then painted the whole thing.

Kennel Gate Summer 2015It’s not fancy-schmancy joinery, but it it should last longer than the first gate did.   I built a swing set for the kids using the same materials and methods, and it’s still standing strong after five years of heavy use.

What I Learned

I’ve learned two things from these failures:

  1. Materials must be adequate to their environment, and to each other.  Combining wet wood and dry wood is a bad idea.  So is exposing rot-susceptible material to the elements.  And no wood finish is waterproof–not even paint.
  2. Joinery must be adequate to the material involved.  Overloading a piece of wood with joints weakens the wood too much.  And insisting on using joinery instead of appropriate hardware can actually compromise the integrity of the whole structure.

I expect that this is not the last time I will describe and analyze my failures on this blog, if only because no woodworking magazine you’ll ever read will run regular articles on failed furniture.

Now I’m not saying that woodworking magazines should run a regular “Failures” column or anything. Well, come to think of it, maybe that’s exactly what I’m suggesting.  Readers could submit short descriptions of their most spectacular failures and how they dealt with them.

I would be a regular reader, and probably an occasional contributor too.

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