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.

Posted in Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Note of Encouragement to Beginning Carvers

If you’re doing any wood carving these days, you probably belong to one or more Facebook groups for carving. Or you follow some expert carvers on Instagram.

Seeing beautiful woodwork every day can be inspiring at first. But eventually it can become discouraging when you begin comparing your own work with what you see on the internet.

So when you get discouraged because your work doesn’t look like “theirs,” it’s time to stop making comparisons. The people who produce beautiful work today didn’t start out like that. Their first efforts were probably no better than yours.

Here’s some of my early work still in process. I learned a lot with each one.

If you must compare, then don’t compare your work today with the work of people who have been carving for years. Compare your work today to the work you did yesterday. Don’t aim at perfection; aim at improvement.

So get off social media for a few days and carve a dozen spoons in a row. With each one, try to improve a little bit on the previous one. Once you lay out the whole dozen, you will see a marked change from #1 to #12. (If you see no improvement, it’s time to revisit your technique.) Yes, it is important to observe the best qualities of the best work you can find, and imitate it where you can. The time will come to chase perfection, but now is probably not that time.

Even excellent carvers can be ten-percent pleased with ninety percent of their work and ninety-percent pleased with ten percent of their work. But it’s that top ten percent that gets a nice pic posted to social media. So when you’re comparing your first attempts to the pics you see on Instagram, you’re setting yourself up against the best work of the best carvers. No wonder we get discouraged sometimes!

One more thing: not everybody who posts pics on the internet is 100% honest about their work. Pictures can hide a lot of flaws. A few photography tricks can make mediocre woodwork look great.

So don’t compare your work in person to pictures of other people’s work. If you want to make comparisons that will help you improve, then pick up other people’s work in person. Buy antique spoons when you find them at antique shops. Participate in a spoon exchange, or buy a spoon outright from a carver you admire. You will learn far more comparing your work to a single example of another carver’s work than you will looking at a thousand pictures.

This applies to all kinds of woodwork, not just carving. Comparing your work to the work of social media “influencers” is the road to despair.

Don’t give up. You can do this!

Posted in Carving, Wood and Woodwork, Woodenware | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Can You Carve Spoons from Dry Wood?

Spoons and other “treen” are traditionally carved from green wood, cut fresh from the tree. The obvious advantages are that (1) fresh-cut wood is softer and generally easier to cut than dried wood, and (2) you don’t have to spend time waiting for the wood to dry before you work it.

Some would-be carvers, however, have a difficult time finding suitable green wood. Especially if you live in an urban area, in a desert region, or in some other tree-poor area, it can be hard to get a fresh-cut hardwood crook out of which to carve a wooden spoon.

But dry wood can be easy to find. There are lumberyards everywhere, and even the big-box stores sell one or two species of hardwood. So can you carve spoons from dry wood?

Yes and no. Technically yes, but not always. Sometimes. It’s complicated. Let me explain.

Yes, you can carve spoons from dry wood–within limitations. I make most of my spoons from relatively dry wood, and some species I prefer to carve dry. Here is what I’ve learned:

  1. It depends on the species. Some species, such as poplar and black walnut, are fairly easy to carve even when dry. Others, such as soft maple, are an absolute pain to carve dry, and I avoid it. A little experimentation will tell you a lot about whether a particular species is a suitable choice for dry carving.
  2. It depends on the tools. When I carve dry woods, I typically use a carving gouge, a drawknife, and a couple spokeshaves while holding the work in a bench vise. Although I do use a traditional sloyd knife and hook knife to carve some smaller spoons from dry wood, I find that lap-carving methods are often less than ideal when working dry wood.
  3. It depends on the sharpness of the tools. When carving freshly-cut, soaking wet wood, you can get away with a slightly dull edge. But when you put that edge to drier wood, you will realize that you were doing just that–getting away with it. When working dry wood with hand tools, your edges must be extremely keen. Be prepared to hone and strop often to keep your edges sharp.
  4. It depends on the drying method. I harvest most of my spoon wood straight from the log, and I air-dry it at a fairly slow rate (because it’s really humid here). In many species, there is a noticeable difference in workability between air-dried wood and kiln-dried wood. If you need to use dry wood for carving and you can’t harvest it yourself, try to find a small-scale sawmill that deals in air-dried wood. Also, even if you harvest some green wood and don’t get around to carving it right away, it may still be workable even once it has air-dried–so long as it has not cracked in the wrong way.
When cutting my own wood for spoons, I normally split out the logs into manageable widths first, and then lay them up to dry a bit before going further. In this case, I am allowing these pecan logs to spalt before cutting them up. The spalting process stops once the wood dries out.

So if you find yourself without access to green wood, don’t give up on the idea of spoon carving. You may need to choose different tools or get creative about sourcing your stock, but it IS possible to carve nice spoons from dried wood.

Posted in Carving, Lumber, Woodenware | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

I Wrote a Book!

I spend a lot of time making three basic kinds of things: food, books, and woodwork. This blog was designed to showcase the last category, my woodworking. On the blog, I’ve tried to stay away from content that’s not somehow related to woodworking. (I refuse to turn this into a “food blog,” for instance.) But over the past four years I have been quietly working on writing a book, and I’m excited that it’s finally finished.

The book has nothing to do with woodworking. As I was writing it, I thought of it as a book of practical theology. I suppose some would call it a book of Christian spiritual counsel. Whatever the genre, I have just self-published it through Amazon. You can find it here.

Now, if you have no interest in Christianity, religion, or spirituality, then this is not the book for you–read no further. (I’ll be back to woodworking content on this blog in the coming weeks.) But because I sometimes find myself curious about the intellectual and spiritual lives of the woodworkers I admire, I thought perhaps it would be appropriate to open a small window into a different part of my life.

This book was written out of a long and difficult period of growth for me (and my whole family). I have been a Christian since I was a kid–I read the Bible, I’m active at church, and I make an effort to live out my faith. But there came a point where my inner life went dry. These activities weren’t satisfying anymore. Sometimes they didn’t even feel meaningful. But I didn’t know what to do about it except just keep trying.

Then something happened. My spiritual resources were not up to the challenges I was suddenly facing, and some major life crises left me searching for answers that went beyond religious pop psychology and abstract theology. The result of my searching was this book.

I know all that probably sounds really vague. But I’m trying not to just repeat everything I’ve put into the book. If it sounds interesting to you, pick up a copy.

The book is available in paperback and as an e-book on the Kindle platform.

I’ve tried to make the book as affordable as possible. (Amazon sets firm parameters for pricing.) But unlike books published through conventional presses where authors see only pennies on the dollar, 70% the purchase price comes back to me. If you have enjoyed my writing and want to support it, this is a great way to do it. (Thanks to those who have already purchased a copy or three! You know who you are.)

One downside of being my own copy-editor is that I overlooked one or two things in the production process. The biggest issue is that the print version of the book doesn’t have a table of contents. (Doh!) So if you want to know what the book is about, here is the chapter-by-chapter breakdown:



Part I: Preparation

1. The Tabernacle: The Biblical Diagram of Spiritual Worship

2. Are You Able to Go In?

3. Are You Willing to Go In?

4. How to Go In: Dwelling in God’s Presence

Part II: Prayer

5. Prayer Is the Way into God’s Presence

6. Fighting in Prayer

7. Myths about Prayer

8. The Practice of Prayer

Part III: Conclusion

9. The Spiritual Life for Everyone


If you do read the book and want to talk to me about it, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences. You can find my e-mail address on the “About” page.

Posted in books, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Literary Workshop is 10 Years Old Today!

Ten years ago today, I launched this blog with this single-paragraph post:

Another Woodworking Blog? Really?

Yes, another woodworking blog.  Why?  I started working wood only a few years ago, and I quickly began to chronicle my progress on WoodNet, a popular woodworking forum on which I am currently a moderator.  But WoodNet saves threads for only one year, and I wanted a place to publicly archive pictures and descriptions of my work.  And if I can help other woodworkers practice their craft a little better, then I will consider this blog a success.

A few things have changed since then.

This was my original cover-image for the blog. I still use the workbench, although the wood is now significantly darker due to age and grime. I also have just a few more tools now than I did then.

A decade ago, it seemed like everybody was starting a blog. But these days, hobby blogs are a little passe, having been overtaken first by YouTube channels and now by podcasts and Instagram accounts. I do have an Instagram account (my handle is steve_schuler ). But I have neither the skills nor the equipment to record myself and/or my work, so I continue to plug away at the blog, adding approximately one post a month. This will be the 335th blog post.

In the short space of ten years, the way in which woodworkers get their information has changed. Internet forums used to be almost as influential as magazines. But now the days of the woodworking magazine seem to be waning (with some notable exceptions like Mortise & Tenon). WoodNet is, unfortunately, not the busy forum that it used to be. (And I’m no longer a moderator there.) There are still some very knowledgeable members who hang out there, and I drop in from time to time. But a lot of online woodworking discussion has now moved to other social media platforms like Facebook groups (about which I am ambivalent).

Ten years ago, my goal in making the blog was mostly archival: I wanted a public storage space for pictures and descriptions of projects I was doing and of techniques I was discovering. But I’m also a compulsive writer and teacher, so I suppose that I had always hoped that the blog would be more than an occasionally-viewed online archive of one guy’s forays into amateur woodworking. I wanted to help other people learn what I was learning about the craft. So I’m always pleased when one of my posts garners a comment or two from somebody who has found it helpful.

I suppose the biggest change I’ve seen over the past ten years has been in my own work. I’ve almost completely stopped acquiring tools–or at least acquiring them on purpose. I pick up old tools occasionally for one of the kids to use, or somebody gives me a tool for free. Ten years ago, my tool wish-list was pretty long. Now it might have one or two items left on it. (Fishtail chisel, Veritas skew rabbet plane RH….) I now have all the tools I need to make the kind of things I want to make.

I’ve learned a lot, too. Ten years ago the mortise-and-tenon joint still gave me fits, but I’m more confident with it now. I use a wider variety of materials, too. I still use a lot of pine, but I’ve also been able to branch out into local hardwoods that I am now able to process myself right from the tree.

Spalted pecan has become a specialty of mine.

Ten years ago, I was still stopping to photograph each step of the projects I built. (I don’t think I even had a working camera phone then–I was using a digital point-and-shoot for everything.) Photographing my work in progress was good for me at the time. It forced me to slow down and think about each step in the process. Seeing pictures of my work also helped me to perceive proportions and shades of color in my work that I would have otherwise overlooked. But photography takes time, and I eventually quit taking so many process pics. My goal now is to make furniture. And even though my “customers” are mostly the members of my own family, my time is still limited. I can’t afford to have half-finished projects sitting around for days on end.

Looking back over the last ten years, I’ve branched out in some unexpected ways.

I helped a student build an Anglo-Saxon lyre.

I started making pipes.

And I adopted a daughter and taught her some woodworking.

Ten years ago, I couldn’t have seen any of those things coming. Who knows what the next decade will hold?

Posted in Musings | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Why Aren’t There More Novels about Woodworkers (or about Anyone in the Trades)?

I recently got an e-mail from a reader, Chris, asking if I knew of any good fiction or even poetry about woodworkers or woodworking. I hate to admit it, but even though this blog is The Literary Workshop, I was stumped.  I can think of only one classic novel, Adam Bede by George Eliot, in which the protagonist is a woodworker.

Chris’s question got me thinking about why there aren’t more great novels about people in the trades.   It’s not that every protagonist of a novel is unemployed.  Lots of protagonists have jobs.  Off the top of my head, here are some of the professions/trades of just a few protagonists in novels I’ve enjoyed:

  • In Anthony Trollope’s Barchester series, the protagonists are clergymen.
  • In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the protagonist is a sometime student and full-time n’er-do-well.  (Ditto James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.)
  • In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the protagonist is an experimental scientist.
  • In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the initial protagonist is a lawyer.
  • In Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, the protagonist is a butler.
  • In Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the protagonist is (was) a traveling salesman.  Although we ARE told that he makes wooden picture frames with a fretsaw in his spare time–so there’s a woodworking connection for you.

There are, however, a few interesting standouts:

  • In Earnest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, the protagonist is a fisherman, and the details of his trade are intrinsic to the story.
  • In Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the protagonist takes on a number of (increasingly degrading) jobs, from working in a dairy to processing animal feed.
  • In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the protagonist sails on a whaling vessel, and the details of the trade are described in excruciating detail–but what they have to do with the story itself is a matter of some debate.

And yet, many protagonists of novels do not work at all.  They are gentry or aristocrats if they are English, or if they are American, they are independently wealthy.  Or they may be children who are not old enough to have jobs (Tom Sawyer and Harry Potter).  Or, if they do happen to have nominal jobs, they tend not to show up at work very often, and their “real” adventures occur in their off-hours.

There are popular novelists write about police officers, firefighters, nurses, and soldiers, I assume because these jobs seem intrinsically adventuresome–even dangerous–and therefore invite the novelist’s attention.  These novelists have to spend a lot of time interviewing professionals and learning about how they work, and the best of them do a passable job of depicting the nature of their protagonist’s work.  I’ve noticed, however, that even popular novelists tend not to write about, say, roofers or chairmakers with the same attention to professional practice.

Then there are novelists who happen to have professional expertise.  Anton Chekhov and Walker Percy were physicians before they started writing, and doctors show up pretty frequently in their stories.  Not a few novelists were lawyers in a previous life.  The crime novel, the courtroom novel, and the detective novel are all well-established genres.

The kinds of jobs that really attract novelists are all what I would call “investigative specialists”: the detective, the lawyer, the reporter, the doctor, and even the clergyman.  Their job is to find out what went wrong and help put it right.  Conflict, climax, and revelation can be intrinsic to their work.  But unlike the car mechanic who can solve the case of the mysterious sound under the hood, these professionals investigate specifically human behavior.  A patient walks into the exam room with mysterious symptoms.  A parishioner reveals a dark secret in the confessional.  A desperate woman implores Sherlock Holmes to investigate her sister’s mysterious death.  If you wrote a story about how a foundation repair company solved the case of the cracks in the wall, it would sound like a parody.

But surely people who work in the trades can be interesting in their own way.  Why don’t novelists write more stories about people who do skilled, manual work for a living?  Let’s set this up as a multiple-choice quiz:

A. It’s inconvenient to write about people who have regular jobs.  If you’re the protagonist in a novel, it’s implausible that you would spend all your time falling in love or solving a mystery when the foreman expects you to clock in tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. sharp.  Novels thrive on the unexpected, but people in the trades thrive on routine and predictability.  Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” cycle doesn’t work so well for people who work five days a week and only get two weeks’ vacation a year.  And then there’s the money.  Being a protagonist can get expensive.  You have to be able to buy a plane ticket to Rio or Paris at the last minute and still have money for hotels, cabs, nice dinners, and tips.  And even though electricians and auto mechanics make decent money, they’re not the sorts of people who would blow it all on the kinds of things people do in novels.  It’s so much easier to tell your story if your protagonist isn’t constantly worried about money or about making it to work on time.

B. We like to fantasize about people who aren’t like us, especially the elite.  Fiction is escapist, and middle-class readers of novels don’t want to read about people just like themselves.  Who wants to read a novel about a landscaper when you’re married to one?  The average reader wants to imagine what it’s like to be independently wealthy, to be able to sail across the ocean in pursuit of true love.  We want to read novels about people who don’t have to work, who can take up all their time entertaining us with their adventures, whether it’s Don Quixote, Elizabeth Bennett, Huck Finn, or Quentin Compson.

That’s why we also like to read about people who are lower on the social scale than ourselves.  There are squalor-fantasies as well as elite-fantasies.  The street urchins and petty criminals in Dickens entertain us just as much as the minor gentry in Austen.  Entering either world imaginatively is an escape from our own dreary, nine-to-five jobs that we would like to forget about as soon as we get into our cars and head home.

C. Novelists are ignorant of the trades because the division of labor is an inescapable feature of modern life.  Each trade has its own specialized language, as well as its trade secrets, that are not widely known outside the trade, by the novelist or by anybody else.  So even if the novelist is willing to pry into the mysteries of the trade (as Dorothy Sayers pried into the esoteric world of bell ringing for her novel The Nine Tailors), there remains the problems of (1) making the technical knowledge meaningful to general readers without boring them to death, and (2) making the technical knowledge relevant to the story they are trying to tell.  If you’re going to write a novel about auto mechanics or concrete workers, then you have to know a lot about car engines or about concrete–not just in theory but in practice.  And then you have to figure out what a radiator leak or form boards have to do with the story in the first place.  A plumber finding the source of a gas leak seems pretty uninteresting–and a novelist wouldn’t know how a plumber locates a gas leak anyway.

D. People write what they know, and a lot of novelists live in bubbles, hopelessly isolated from skilled laborers.  “Literary” novels are increasingly written either by professional novelists who do nothing but write novels or by college professors who make their actual living by teaching in creative writing programs, whose students are mostly disaffected misfits from the upscale suburbs.  Neither kind of novelist is in regular contact with real people who work in the trades.  Not many of them would know the actual dimensions of a 2X4, much less the difference between a thickness planer and a drum sander.

E. Making and repairing things is a process that proceeds according to fundamental patterns that are simply different from and incompatible with the fundamental patterns that underlie fiction.  A story about a general contractor building a house step-by-step would only be interesting to other house builders.  And even then, if the build goes according to plan, all the reader can say at the end is, “Yes, that’s how it’s supposed to go.”  A sudden complication in the story (“Oh no!  The lumberyard delivered the wrong size trusses!”) is an unwelcome annoyance, not an intriguing plot twist.

Adventure and construction are such different things that it is impossible to both tell a compelling story and give a faithful account of the process of making something.  There are magazines that print stories and magazines that print articles on how to make things, but they are necessarily two different kinds of publications.  The how-to article is for the specialist, for the professional or the dedicated amateur who will (or could) follow along and reproduce the object being made.  The how-to article might be viewed as a story, with its own beginning, middle, and end, but if the reader enjoys it as a narrative that is really beside the point.  The point is to show how something is made.  This is illustrated by one of the few attempts at a hybrid story, the anonymous 1839 book The Joiner and Cabinet Maker (reprint available from Lost Art Press) in which technical instruction is framed by the story of a young apprentice learning his trade.  But nobody who was interested only in the story would make it through the first chapter.

A real story can be enjoyed even by somebody who has no prior knowledge of the story’s topic.  The story is not telling you how to get a job done; if it’s any good, it’s being told for its own sake, because the characters and their situations are intrinsically interesting. Stories tap into the things we have in common as humans–our basic desires and fears–especially as they drive our relationships with others and with ourselves.  We read not in order to learn how to get things done, but to enjoy and (perhaps) to understand.

(Check all that apply.)

Happily, there are a few novelists who do tell compelling stories about people in the trades–sometimes even in those involving wood.  I want to highly recommend two books by the contemporary Southern novelist Tim Gautreaux, who regularly features the trades in his stories:

  • The Cleaning is a novel about two estranged brothers who together oversee operations at a rough-and-tumble sawmill operation at the turn of the century.  The characters are vivid and compelling, and the story involves quite a lot of detail about cutting, sawing, and transporting timber.  There are chilling encounters with crime bosses, moments of tender familial love, and some bizarre comic scenes that could take place only in the swamps of the Gulf Coast.
  • Signals is a collection of some of his best short stories, featuring many protagonists in the trades–a typewriter repairman, a sometime welder, a furnace repairman, an exterminator, and several more.  (Fans of Flannery O’Connor are in for a pleasant surprise in the first story, “Idols.”)  The stories are not about the trades, but in each story, the protagonist’s trade really does matter.

What about you?  Can you recommend some fiction or poetry in which woodworking (or another skilled trade) features prominently?

Posted in books, Woodworking Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Building the Marriage Bed

Barely one year ago, I shared a post entitled “One Last Bedstead,” in which I showed how I made a bedframe for my son.  I ended that post with these words: “that should be the last bed frame I have to make for quite a while.”

I now have to retract that claim.

This spring, my oldest daughter (whom we adopted only five years ago) got married.  She and her fiance had been planning a wedding late this summer. But in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, they opted for an earlier wedding in the spring instead.  They held a very small ceremony with only the immediate family members who live nearby.

But more to the point for this blog, I had promised to build them a bedstead as a wedding present.  So when they announced to us that, instead of getting married in a few months, they would be tying the knot in a matter of weeks, the pressure was on for me to have the bed built, finished, and installed before the wedding.

I talked over design options with the bride.  She said she wanted a three-panel headboard, much like the one that my wife and I have.  But she said she planned to paint it instead of putting on a clear finish.  That was a relief to hear.  Preparing a wooden surface for paint is much simpler than preparing it for a clear finish.  The surface just has to be level.  It doesn’t have to be free of color blemishes, nor does it have to be sanded to a high grit.  Even little bits of tearout that would be accentuated by a clear coat can be painted over easily.

I didn’t take a lot of process pictures, but here are a few moments I did capture.

Like most of my recent projects, this bed was made from southern yellow pine, all cut down from construction-grade 2X stock from the local home centers.

Bed for N and J April 2020

This is a queen bed, so many of the workpieces are between 5′ and 7′ in length.  My jointer plane got a lot of use, both in straightening edges and faces and in preparing narrow stock to be glued up into panels.

Bed for N and J April 2020

Shaping the panels on the headboard was one of the really fun parts.  Each panel is beveled freehand with a series of handplanes.  The jack plane removes most of the waste.  The jointer plane establishes a straight line.  And the smoothing plane makes the final passes, leaving a perfectly smooth surface that’s ready to paint.  The beveled edges will fit into grooves plowed into the frames.

Bed for N and J April 2020

Gluing up large, complex pieces always requires some planning and forethought.  As you can see, the top and bottom rails are mortised into the posts and secured with drawbore pegs.  That means I didn’t have to clamp the assembly horizontally.  The drawbore pegs pull the joints up tight.  I just had to clamp up two of the dividers between the panels, which are tenoned into the top and bottom rails.

Bed for N and J April 2020

My daughter N painted the whole assembly herself–in the middle of our dining room, because it was raining outside and we were just about out of time.

Connecting the side rails to the headboard and the footboard was something of a challenge.  The rails have stub tenons on the headboard end, but those are mostly for alignment.  The real connection is done with Veritas bed bolts from Lee Valley.  As it happened, when I was building my own beadstead, I had bought a set of bed bolts, which come in a package of four.  I had used only two on my own bed and squirreled the other two away.  So I used them on my daughter’s bed.

Bed for N and J April 2020

The footboard connection was a little more problematic in execution, though in theory it was a good idea.  I cut long tenons on the rails, and mortised them into the legs on the footboard.  But because the footboard is also tenoned into the legs, I had to lay them out carefully so the tenons didn’t collide in the middle of each leg.  I secured each side with an unglued drawbore peg.  To disassemble the bed, just hammer the drawbore peg back out from the inside.

But herein lay the problem: The drawbore peg ought to have gone straight into the horizontal footboard.  So in order to allow for it to be tapped back out, I had to cut a large, rough trench in the backside of the footboard to allow clearance for a small hammer head.  Or, I THOUGHT I had cut the trench on the backside.  Once I had cut them, to my horror I realized I had cut them on the show side instead!  My daughter and I weighted options, and she finally suggested that I just lay a patch over the mis-cut holes.  See that horizontal panel running the length of the footboard?  Yeah, there are some ugly holes under that.

All that to say this: we got the bed built, painted, and installed in my daughter’s new place just a day or two before the wedding.

Congratulations, N & J.  May your marriage be long and good.

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Your Project Makes You

When you’re building a piece of furniture on a tight schedule, there comes a point where you stop fussing with a workpiece and decide that “good enough” really is good enough.  If, for example, you’re making a dresser for your daughter, who has just recently moved into her own room and is in desperate need of a real dresser to replace the plastic drawer unit she’s been cramming her clothes into, and you’ve promised to have it finished before her birthday, which comes just before the big annual family vacation…. well, you’ve got to economize on time where you can.

A dresser, however, is not the kind of furniture that is especially forgiving of slop.  In theory, a dresser is just a series of boxes nested inside a larger box.  But in practice, each of those smaller boxes must fit inside the larger box with a high degree of precision.  If the drawers are 1/8″ too narrow, they’ll rattle around instead of sliding smoothly in and out.  But if they’re even slightly too wide or too tall, they won’t fit at all.  Plus, both the case and the drawers must be perfectly square, not twisted or rhombus-shaped; otherwise nothing will fit properly.

As I began building the dresser, I considered my approach.  Yes, I needed to get this dresser built, but experience told me that imprecision in the early stages of stock preparation leads to frustration later on.  So despite my tight schedule, I decided that I had better be as precise as I could.  My mantra for this project was going to be “no cutting corners.”  I was going to do each operation as precisely as possible, even where it wasn’t strictly necessary to do so.

A few details about the project itself: I had been stocking up on wide 2X construction-grade southern yellow pine from the local home centers and letting it dry out.  The plan was to build the whole thing out of this SYP, using my bandsaw and planer to cut the wood down to furniture-sized pieces.  The design would be entirely traditional: dovetailed drawers, solid bottoms that slid into grooves, and even solid-wood dust panels between each drawer.  The case would be made from 1″-thick stock milled down from the 2X stock.  There would be no frills–no moldings, no carvings–just a few chamfers and round-overs to protect exposed edges.  There would be absolutely no plywood.  With a few exceptions (such as the dust panels and the case back), I would make each piece as precisely as possible.  And that’s what I did.

In this context, “precision” has a very particular meaning.  I had no intention of making any element of this dresser precise in a mathematically-measurable way.  It didn’t matter in the slightest whether the top finished out at 63/64″ or 1 1/64″ thick.  What did matter was that each workpiece was cut and trued straight and square.  Each drawer blade needed to be exactly the same length, width, and height–whatever those dimensions happened to be in numerical terms.  That doesn’t mean each element was finished to the same degree of smoothness, however,  Undersides and backs were left rough from the jack plane, or even from the bandsaw.  Only exterior surfaces were smoothed and sanded.  But I kept reminding myself that every reference face, and every part that would be joined to another part, had to be made as precisely as I could.

This approach took a new level of self-discipline on my part.  As I planed edges and ends, I checked each of them for square.  At first, this seemed to take up a lot of valuable time.  But it forced me to confront something about myself that I hadn’t really acknowledged before: I’m really bad at keeping my handplane square while I’m planing edges.  I’m nearly as bad at crosscutting wood square.  I have very definite tendencies to lean in one direction (left).  So my squares and my shooting board got a lot of use during this project.  By the end of it, I had a better sense of when I was planing an edge square and when I was definitely off.  My crosscutting had improved a little, too.

The payoff to this approach was two-fold:

First, the final stages of the build were relatively easy.  Doing the final fitting of drawers is usually an arduous task, but not this time.  Because I had taken care that each edge was straight and each drawer was square, I had to do very little additional planing to fit each drawer into the case.  Extra care taken at the beginning meant relative ease at the end, whereas haste and carelessness at the beginning will make a project increasingly difficult as little errors accumulate into big discrepancies.  (There’s a life-lesson in this, I think.)

Second, making myself stop and check for square at every step helped me be able to see and even feel for square more consistently.  The more I forced myself to stop and check, the more I found myself able to tell, if not when I was on, at least when I was definitely off.  That doesn’t mean I started planing everything square on the first try, but by the end of the project, I could get to square more quickly and more reliably than I could before.

All of the above comes down to this: The way you do your work affects you, for good or for ill.  While you are building the project (whatever it may be), you are also building habits.  Each project you build is also building you.

As Aristotle observed, virtue comes down to habit–your character is made up of the kinds of things you do habitually, often without thinking about them.  Habits are built up through a series of choices, conscious or unconscious, that eventually harden into character.  If you keep shrugging at hasty work and telling yourself “it’s good enough,” pretty soon your work won’t be good at all–let alone good enough.

So now that you’ve waded through the philosophical part of the dresser build, here are a few process pictures:

Dresser for K Summer 2020

Leveling the top of the case with my jack plane.  Note the undulations that result from planing directly across the grain.  Also note, the short, thick shavings that result from planing like this.

Dresser for K Summer 2020

Getting the top straight with the jointer plane.  (Zoom in to better see the diagonal plane tracks.)  Here the shavings are long and wide, and tightly curled.

Dresser for K Summer 2020

Smoothing the surface with the smoothing plane.  The shavings are still wide, but they are now very thin ad wispy, curling in unpredictable directions.

Dresser for K Summer 2020

Fitting the drawer blades, which I installed in two stages.  This is the back of the case, with the rear blades and the runners only dry-fitted.  One of these days, I’ll do a blog post on the cat.  His name is Cheddar, and he likes to get into the middle of everything.

Dresser for K Summer 2020

Gang-cutting the dovetails for one of the drawers.  Joinery is one place where “good enough” is generally not actually good enough.  Having planed each side to the exact same dimensions really pays off here.  So does having planed each end straight and true on the shooting board.  It’s easier to see pencil lines on a planed surface than on a sawn one.  And because each edge aligns with the other, it means I can cut two sets of tails at once.

Dresser for K Summer 2020

The dresser with all four drawers fitted into the case.  Dresser-construction tip: fit the drawers BEFORE installing the back.  Otherwise, if you push the drawer all the way in, you’ll have no way to get it back out again.  I installed the back of the dresser last, even after applying the finish and installing the drawer pulls.

Dresser for K Summer 2020

The top drawer pulled out to show its half-blind dovetails.  The square tail at the bottom covers the groove that holds the drawer bottom.  If you look closely at the second tail from the top, you’ll see where I used a shim to repair a slight gap at the baseline.

Dresser for K Summer 2020

This is perhaps my favorite picture from the build-along.  It shows not only a thin and very consistent reveal around a drawer, but it also shows a perfectly tight dado joint. It’s satisfying when your joinery stands up not only to use but also to photographic scrutiny.

Anyway, the real point of the picture is to show the drawer stop.  We all use drawers all the time, but we never really think about the fact that the drawer always stops sliding in at the same place, much less about why the drawer stops where it does.  There are several different ways to create a drawer stop, but this is my favorite.  It’s a triangular slip of wood glued and nailed onto the runner.

Dresser for K Summer 2020

The back of the drawer front makes contact with the stop when you push the drawer in all the way.  The grain of the stop is oriented front-to-back because end-grain is less liable to compress under force than is face grain.  And the stop is triangular so that the drawer bottom, which fits into its groove in the drawer side by means of a bevel planed on the underside, will clear the stop as the drawer slides in and out.

Next time you’re at an antique store, pull a drawer all the way out of some of the older dressers and see if you can find the drawer stops.  They might be on the top or the underside of the drawer blades.  You’ll find quite a variety in drawer stop design.

Dresser for K Summer 2020

Here is the case during the finishing process.  (The finish is clear, semi-gloss lacquer.)  You can see the frame-and-panel dust panels, which were left rough from the saw.  These panels have a couple functions.  First, as the name implies, they prevent the movement of air and airborne dust between drawers.  They also prevent stuff in one of the lower drawers from sticking up and jamming the drawer above.  They are normally omitted on newer dressers, but they come standard on most older, high-quality dressers.

Dresser for K Summer 2020

Here is the dresser completed.  I encouraged my daughter to pick out the knobs, and she chose some simple, antique-brass ones from the home center.  Because the drawer fronts are not a standard thickness, we ended up having to cut each screw down to size so the knobs would tighten properly.  The drawer sides and runners are liberally waxed with paraffin wax so they slide easily.

Dresser for K 2020

And finally, here is the finished dresser in place.  My daughter helped me establish the original width and depth, but the height was predetermined by the situation.  There was exactly 36″ of clearance underneath the half-lofted bed, so that was the one numerical dimension I did have to observe strictly.  The dresser fits with about 1/4″ of overhead clearance.

It’s a bit ironic that I took a lot of trouble to smooth and sand the top of the case, which is now hidden underneath a bed.  But I trust that this dresser won’t always have its top hidden.  My daughter won’t live in this room forever.  (She better not, anyway.)  Eventually she’ll pull this dresser out from under the bed and put it in a bedroom in her own place, and then we’ll both be glad I took the trouble to make the top look and feel good.  After all, I built this dresser to last.  With some luck, it should last longer than either of us.

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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!

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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