Ancient Crafts in the Modern World: Book Review

Cræft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts, by Alexander Langlands, Norton, 2017. $26.95  Amazon link

You may have noticed that there’s a handicrafts revival going on.  Every month there seems to be a new craft market to shop at, another friend picking up a crafty hobby, and a new DIY social media celebrity to follow.  For most of us, it’s just one more curious little corner of modern life.  If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, then this is nothing new, but if you’re the sort of person who wonders what this whole handicrafts revival really means, I have a book for you.

Langlands Craeft 2019

Alexander Langlands is an English archaeologist who has spent the last few years attempting to recreate a number of traditional handicrafts, both professionally for BBC reenactments and in his own home-life in England.  His book is both the story of his adventures in handicrafts and a defense of doing things the “old-fashioned” way.

He begins by defining his keyword, “cræft,” as “wisdom that furnishes the practitioner with a certain power,” which may sound more political than it really is.  (There is, of course, a political element to the book, but Langlands consistently avoids politicization.  It’s a little like reading Wendell Berry without the polemic.)  Each chapter focuses on a different kind of handicraft that Langlands has explored.  There are predictable topics like weaving and basket making, but most of the topics will come as a surprise to American readers—haymaking, skep beehives, thatched roofs, stone walls, and even ponds for watering livestock.

Langlands Craeft 2019

This is not a “how-to” book, and there are few detailed instructions.  You have to read it like an adventure story.  Our hero, the author himself, comes across as a fairly average person at first.  Although he does have a significant lineage (his Scottish grandfather made wooden golf clubs), he is not distinguished by any exceptional talent or social status, but only by his curiosity about his surroundings, his persistence in the face of difficulty, and his willingness to take chances.  He sets out to escape the soulless drudgery of modern, technological life and rediscover older, more meaningful ways to live.

There are episodes detailing the arming of the hero—he discovers a secondhand suit of Harris tweed, and he learns to use a shepherd’s crook.  There is an encounters with a wise old counsellor—an old shepherd called Mr. Mudge. There are even numinous objects that, if not exactly magical, definitely have that sort of appeal to the reader—an apple left on an attic rafter is still eatable after being rediscovered six months later.  As an American, I found this English hero especially attractive: like the prototypical American, he finds himself in a strange, forbidding landscape and must learn to make his way in it if he can.

Langlands is also an explorer who becomes a homesteader, and as an archaeologist, he is also something of a time-traveler, taking us back into earlier ages to discover not only what people did in order to live, but also how and why they did it that way.  Often, people in the distant past made choices based on the simple availability of materials.  One of the most important themes of the book is that good materials for crafts are all around us—as they always have been.  It’s a different perspective on the current trend toward “locally-sourced” foods and goods. Instead of deciding ahead of time on what he needs and seeking out goods that are “locally sourced,” our hero repeatedly finds himself looking around his local landscape for solutions to immediate problems in his house and garden, and he often finds it necessary to adapt traditional methods of working to the local materials at hand.  The book has encouraged me to take a look around my own neighborhood for materials I can experiment with using in my own handicrafts.  Rather than bemoan the lack of locally-grown walnut and maple, I can learn to appreciate the locally-available pines and cypresses.

Langlands Craeft 2019

The book’s only major drawback is the lack of pictures or illustrations.  While Langlands is an excellent wordsmith, and many of his descriptions are both technically precise and visually evocative, I would not have understood a number of his passages had I not first read an older book called The Forgotten Crafts by John Seymour, which is a richly illustrated book about all manner of traditional handicrafts.  I highly recommend getting Seymour’s book and reading it alongside this one.

Langlands Craeft 2019

Amazon link to reprint of the Seymour book.

 

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Posted in books, Reviews, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Building A Frame-and-Panel Interior Door

If I had a backup career in woodworking, it would be making doors and windows for historic homes.  It’s not that I especially enjoy making such objects more than others.  (I’ve never even made a window sash.)  It’s that it’s virtually impossible to buy an interior door that looks like it belongs in an old house.

I thought about that a lot over the last few days.  For years, I had been meaning to replace my dining room door:

Dining Room Door Build 3-2019

I really don’t need to explain why, do I?  Between the dog, the cats, the kids, and time, this door could almost be seen through.

I could have just gone down to the home center and bought another hollow-core door, but I don’t think it would have held up any better than this one did.  Furthermore, my dining room walls are paneled with beautiful, antique knotty pine, so I decided to build a door from similar pine that would fit into the aesthetic of the room.  After drawing out a few different designs, I settled on something that would be simple, sturdy, and pleasing to the eye.  An additional consideration is that this doorway provides almost the only airflow between two big areas of the house, so when the door is closed, the HVAC can’t recirculate air from this part of the house.  I decided to include a small air vent in the bottom of the door to accommodate airflow when the door needs to be closed.

Here’s a preview of the results:

Dining Room Door Build 3-2019

From here on out, I’m going to let the pictures tell the story as much as possible and keep the text to a minimum.

Stock Selection and Preparation

I had laid up several southern yellow pine boards for this project months ago.  The bandsaw helped me cut them to width, but after that, nearly everything was hand work.

Dining Room Door Build 3-2019

I made a whole garbage bag of wood shavings at this stage.  When the knots are minimal, this wood really does plane down nicely.

Grooving

The frame-and-panel construction requires grooves around the insides of the frames.  The grooves will eventually guide me in placing my mortises and tenons.

Dining Room Door Build 3-2019

My Veritas small plow plane performed exceptionally well here.  Using the conversion kit (with the extra skate), I plowed grooves 1/2″ wide and 3/8″ deep.  The extra skate kept the plane very stable in the cut, even in reversing grain.

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My daughter managed to get an action shot.

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This plane makes so many cool shavings!

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The younger kids love to play with the “wooden springs.”

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The cat, on the other hand, is not so sure.

Mortise and Tenon

The most exacting work in this project is cutting the tenons and the mortises.

Dining Room Door Build 3-2019

I’ve always been a tenons-first kind of guy.  In southern yellow pine, when the grain is straight, you don’t even need to saw the tenons out.  Just saw the baseline with a backsaw and split out the tenon cheeks.  It’s faster (and a lot more fun) than sawing them.  Just don’t try to split off the entire cheek at once.  Split off half the waste, then half again, until you can only pare to the line.

I used the tenons to lay out the exact locations of the mortises.  These mortises are about 3″ deep and 1/2″ wide, which is too big for me to chop.  Instead, I bored out most of the waste with an auger bit.

Dining Room Door Build 3-2019

With mortises this deep, it’s critical that you bore straight down.  With the work up on the bench, it’s too easy to tilt the bit and brace to one side or the other.  So I put the workpiece on the floor and straddled it to keep it steady.  Sighting down the groove, it was pretty easy to keep the bit straight up and down.  The real trick was to place the holes so they just overlapped each other.

Dining Room Door Build 3-2019

Then I squared up the mortises with chisels.

A lot of woodworking articles/books will say things like “now square up the hole with a chisel.”  Well, it’s not quite as simple as the books make it sound.  First I used a 1/2″ chisel to chop down across the end grain on each end of the mortise.  Then I used a broad chisel to pare down each side.  Finally, I used a narrower chisel to pick out the waste pieces.  Repeating the process three or four times got me down to the 3″ depth I needed on each of the eight mortises in this door.

The bottom stile of the door is so wide that it requires a double tenon, which is an added complication in getting everything fitted just right.

Dining Room Door Build 3-2019

If all goes well, the tenon should go all the way in with only hand pressure.  It shouldn’t wiggle around in the mortise, but it need not be a piston-fit either.

Panels

I used my bandsaw to rip down two panels to about 5/8″ thick, then planed them to a (somewhat) consistent thickness.  That operation got me another garbage bag full of shavings.

Dining Room Door Build 3-2019

The dog got to enjoy the shavings before I swept them up.

Dining Room Door Build 3-2019

After penciling out the depth of the bevels on the panels, I started planing them down with the joiner plane set to take a heavy cut. I planed them to finished depth with the smoothing plane.

Dining Room Door Build 3-2019

I used an offcut with a groove (saved from my tenon cutting) as a “mullet” to check the fit.

Assembly

With the joints cut and the panels shaped, I was able to check the overall fit.

Dining Room Door Build 3-2019

At this stage, I bored the holes for the drawbore pegs, one or two per tenon.

I also realized that I had cut the panels just a little bit short, either because I mis-measured or because I cut on the wrong side of the line a couple times.

Dining Room Door Build 3-2019

The solution was to glue spacers into the bottom groove in order to raise the panels up just a little bit.  That should keep gaps from opening up during dry weather.  It was already unusually dry for this time of year, so I don’t expect the door to shrink much.  Our normal weather is extremely humid.  But wood does still shrink a little over the years, so you have to plan for it regardless of the current weather.

The only part of this door that isn’t pine is the drawbore pegs, which are red oak.

Dining Room Door Build 3-2019

I’ve tried using other hardwoods for drawbore pegs, but oak is by far the best.  It’s tough enough to pull the joint closed without breaking, but it rives cleanly enough to make a straight-grained peg quickly.  I split the pegs out, then pared and planed them to the right thickness, pointing the ends with a knife.

Dining Room Door Build 3-2019

Drawboring mortise and tenon joints without glue is so relaxing compared to gluing up an assembly.  There’s no rush at all.  You can take your time and make sure everything is coming together exactly right.  There are no clamps to fuss with, and you don’t have to wait for any glue to cure.

Dining Room Door Build 3-2019

It’s a beautiful sight (to my eyes, at least) to see a drawbored assembly come together.

Dining Room Door Build 3-2019

I use my dovetail saw to trim the pins almost flush.

Dining Room Door Build 3-2019

Running the spine up against the wood keeps the teeth just clear of the surface.  I trim them down just about flush with a handplane.

Holes, Hanging, and Finish

After all that work, it was a little painful to cut out a large hole in the bottom stile.  At least this was one of the easiest operations to complete.

Dining Room Door Build 3-2019

I bored a series of holes in two corners.

Dining Room Door Build 3-2019

Then, using my narrowest handsaw, I sawed out the waste.

Dining Room Door Build 3-2019

I had always wondered why I kept that pencil-thin handsaw around.  Now I know!  I then screwed a vent cover over both sides of the hole.

I put a couple coats of satin polyurethane on it (rattle can application) and let it dry overnight. Just to clarify, this was about day 3 or day 4 of the build.  I worked on it for a few hours a day over about a week of vacation.

With the door construction complete, it was time to make even more holes in it.  First I mortised in the hinges.  (Sorry, no pictures–I was in a hurry at this point.)  Hanging a door is awkward but not as difficult as some people make it sound.  I was able to use the brass hinges from the old door and thus keep their original mortises in the door frame.  Setting the new door in the door frame and raising it up to the right height with wedges underneath, I marked the location of the hinge mortises on the new door with a marking knife.  Some careful chisel work got the hinges in exactly the right place.

Last, I installed the handle–also a part salvaged from the original door–which had taken on a nice, antique patina over the years.  You can’t buy that look at the store.

Dining Room Door Build 3-2019

My brace and bits have done a lot more work on this project than I anticipated.

And that brings us to the hung door.  I did remove the door jamb and re-fit it snuggly around the door, as this door is a slightly different thickness than the previous one.

Dining Room Door Build 3-2019

In five or ten years, the pine will have naturally darkened and match the color of the surrounding paneling perfectly.  I’m happy to wait.

 

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How to Sell Your Handmade Goods at a Craft Market, part 3: Vendor Etiquette

In the last two posts, I offered some practical suggestions for creating an effective display table and interacting with customers at craft markets.  But there’s more to being a good vendor than just making your stuff look good and having an effective sales pitch.  Even if you’re not very good at salesmanship, and even if your display table looks pretty basic, you can still be a vendor that everybody enjoys having around if you make an effort to be a pleasant person who is easy to get along with.  In other words, if you have good etiquette.

First, all the usual rules of social etiquette apply at a craft market: say “please” and “thank you,” talk respectfully to everyone, and treat people fairly.  (If you’re bad mannered in general, nothing I’m going to say here will help you.)  But there are some additional things you can do to act like a civilized human being at the craft market.

  • Come within the specified set-up time.  Do not come earlier than allowed.  Being an early-bird is frowned upon by market organizers.  Do, however, make every effort to be fully set up before the market opens.  If you’re running late, call the organizer and let him or her know that you’re on your way.  I have watched vendors spend the first hour of an open market setting up their display, and not only didn’t they make sales during that time, but their stuff was all over the walkway and obstructing customers’ path.
  • Park as far away as you reasonably can.  Many Americans seem to consider parking  a competitive sport–whoever parks closest, wins.  It’s a stupid game, really, but it’s doubly stupid to take up a parking space that one of your customers might have used instead.  Think about it this way: the farther people have to walk in the parking area, the less they will want to walk around the market, and the less shopping they will do.  You want them to do more shopping, so leave the best parking spots for them.
  • You don’t get a lunch break.  If the market lasts more than a couple of hours, you’re going to get hungry.  But you shouldn’t leave your table to take a food break or stand in line at the food truck.  Unless business is slow, you’re not going to have time for a meal, and you don’t want to be talking to customers with your mouth full anyway.  Bring granola bars or other small snack foods instead.  And don’t forget to bring lots of water!  I usually drink 20-30 oz. of water during a normal market, and I’m still parched when I leave.
  • Stay sober.  Alcoholic drinks may be allowed or even served at the venue.  One drink may loosen you up a bit and make you more relaxed as you talk to potential customers, but buzzed or drunk vendors are obnoxious.  (Yes, I’ve seen this happen.  It’s not pretty.)
  • Be friendly to the other vendors around you.  Smile and shake hands.  Ask their names.  Compliment their work.  But don’t critique them, and don’t give advice–unless they ask for it, of course.  Keep your stuff out of their space.  Keep an eye on their table when they take a bathroom break.  They are your neighbors for the day, so do your best to be a good neighbor.
  • Don’t monopolize other vendors’ attention.  There are always a few vendors who come more to socialize than to sell stuff.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  But if that’s you, don’t hang out in front of somebody else’s table and block potential customers.  Instead, stand off to the side of your acquaintance’s table, and back off as soon as a potential customer approaches.  You can always resume the conversation later.
  • Stay positive, even when things are slow.  When the organizer comes around to see how things are doing, it’s okay to be honest–but don’t be brutal.  “No sales yet” is fine, but better to say, “it’s a little slow, but I’m hoping it will pick up soon.”  They have worked hard to put this event together, and they are just as disappointed as you are when turnout is low.  Always treat the organizers like they’re on your side.
  • It’s okay to say “no.”  As a crafty vendor, you will occasionally get offers for all kinds of things.  It’s nice when you’re able to say “yes” to somebody.  But you do not have accept requests for custom work, requests for personal contact info, offers of “business opportunities,” or even offers of free stuff.  Don’t feel bad about saying, “I appreciate your offer, but I’m going to pass on that.”
  • Do refer business to other crafters.  The more you participate in markets, the more you will get to know people whose crafts complement yours.  For example, I make wooden spoons and spatulas to sell, but I don’t make wooden bowls.  I do, however, know one or two local people who do, and I’m happy to send potential customers to them.  They’ve also been known to send customers to me, so it works out great for everybody in the end.
  • Stay the whole time. I’m always amazed at how many vendors pack up early, especially since staying in place until the very end often pays off.  Last-minute sales are more common than you might think.  Other vendors are more likely to come over and purchase something from you once their tables are taken down.  Don’t even start breaking down until the market is officially closed or until at least half the other vendors have take their tables down.  Not only is it good manners; it’s just good business sense.
  • Leave a clean space.  Once you’ve taken down your display, double-check for any trash or other debris–even if you didn’t personally leave it.  You might even ask for a broom and offer to sweep up your area, and even beyond it.  Cleaning up after yourself shows that you value the venue.
  • Give gratitude.  As you leave, seek out the organizers and thank them for inviting you.  Even if your experience wasn’t ideal, be sure to tell them what you did appreciate about the market–even if it’s something small.  We all respond well to positive feedback.

The bottom line here is that you DO want to be invited back to future markets.  And even if you never attend that particular market again, the world of craft markets is pretty small and word gets around.  Market organizers talk to each other about vendors just like vendors talk to each other about market organizers.  You want to be the vendor that everybody talks about in a good way–not just because you have a snazzy display table, but because you’re pleasant to have around.

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How to Sell Your Handmade Goods at a Craft Market, part 2: Interacting with People

A lot of crafty, creative types are pretty introverted.  While it might be relatively easy for you as an introverted, creative person to set up a very attractive display table, the prospect of standing behind that table and talking to complete strangers all afternoon at a craft market might just scare you to death.

Night Market Table Fall 2016

I admit that I’m stereotyping here, and if you are naturally gregarious, then you do have an advantage at a craft market.  But even if you’re naturally quiet and shy, you can learn some basic skills to sell your work effectively, just like you learned the skills necessary to make your craft work.

For myself, I’m an awkward people-person.  As a professional teacher, I’m used to talking to people all day, but I’m really more comfortable in front of a group of people than I am one-on-one (and I am more comfortable still when I’m alone with my books).  I’ve never liked approaching strangers, and striking up a conversation with somebody I don’t know well has never come easily.  But thanks to a little advice, a little self-evaluation, and a lot of practice, I’ve learned that there are some things I need to do (and several things I should definitely not to do) to help me sell my work.

BE THERE

Be present. These days we hear a lot about “mindfulness,” which I think is just another way of saying “pay attention.”  So the first rule of interacting with customers is to give your business your full attention.  Look up and look around.  Be attentive to people before they approach you.  Make eye contact with everyone who walks by, and greet them cordially.  Don’t look away until they do.  It takes time and practice to build up enough confidence to do this, but it really helps.  If people sense that you are willing to pay attention to them, they’re more likely to pay attention to you.

Stand; don’t sit.  I get it–craft markets that last all day are hard on the body as well as on the mind.  But as tempting as it is to sit in a lawn chair behind your table while customers browse, don’t do it!  The lawn chair sends a subtle message that you’re not really at work.  It says you’re relaxing and probably don’t want to be disturbed.  If you stand, however, it puts you on the same level as your customers (literally and metaphorically), and you look like you’re there to do business, not to take a vacation.  If you physically can’t be on your feet the whole time, a bar stool is much better than a lawn chair.

Standing has one other advantage over sitting: it lets you stand beside the table, not just behind it.  Because really, there’s no law that says the table must always stay between the vendor and the customer.  To the introvert, it may feel comfortable to have the physical barrier of the table between you and the customer, but many of the best vendors arrange their booths so that they can easily come around and stand beside their customers as they show off their wares.

Put down your phone.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a potential customer approach another crafter’s booth and then wander away after a couple seconds because the vendor was absorbed in his or her phone.  Yes, there will be slow times when you can sneak a peak at your social media pages and even post pictures of your display table. ( #craftmarket #handmade )  But when there are potential customers within eyesight–even if they’re not walking toward your table–you need to put the phone away.

TALKING TO PEOPLE 

I’ve sold my wares at quite a few markets, and you know what?  The first time a potential customer approaches, I STILL get butterflies in my stomach!

As people approach, remind yourself that, if they’re coming up to your table at all, that means they actually want to hear about your work.  You don’t have to manipulate them into buying anything.  You just have to tell them why your work is special.

Have a spiel ready.  It is absolutely pointless to try to come up with something original to say to every customer.  But if you know what you’re going to say ahead of time, it makes the whole exchange much less awkward.  A good spiel is short and to the point.  In two or three sentences, tell your potential customer what you’re selling and why it’s special.

Here’s how mine goes:

“We have handmade wooden spoons and spatulas.  We make them from hardwoods, mostly salvaged from downed trees and limbs–wood that would otherwise end up in the burn pile.  We use traditional hand tools to shape them individually, so each one is a little feels a little bit different in the hand.”

That takes about 15 seconds to say.  Sometimes I change it up, leaving out something here or adding something there.  But the central message stays the same.  You can even write your spiel down and memorize it if you like.  You know you have a good spiel if, by the end of the market, the vendors next to you can give your spiel, too.

Encourage people to handle your items.  After I had done a couple craft markets, I noticed that about half the people who actually picked up one of my spoons would buy something from me.  But people who didn’t touch anything didn’t buy anything.  So I started encouraging people to pick things up.  “Go ahead and pick them up,” I would tell them.  “They’re made to be used!”  It helped a lot.

Spalted Pecan Spoons and Spatulas 12-2016

Later, my daughter showed me a more subtle way to encourage people to handle the merchandise: As people approach your table, and you start your spiel, pick up one of your items and handle it.  Not only does it signal to customers that it’s okay to pick up the merchandise, but it also gives you something to hold so your hands aren’t just fidgeting.  If the customer seems interested, you can even hand him or her the item.  Trust me: this really works!

Let the silence work.  There are vendors who can keep up a steady dialogue with a customer without much effort.  But if that’s not you, it’s okay to give your spiel and then be quiet for a little while.  If somebody is quietly lingering over your table, that’s a good sign.  It can feel awkward standing there in silence while people are looking at your work, so if you want to break the silence by offering a few more details about your work, like where you get your materials, or how you make them, that’s great.  You can also mention prices and even payment options.  “I do take credit cards” is a good way to start making a sale.  But it’s also okay to step back and quietly let your items sell themselves.

Keep a positive attitude.  It’s a hard reality that most of the people you talk to at a craft market won’t buy anything from you.  A lot of people will pause at your table for a few seconds, hear your spiel, and then keep walking.  Don’t get discouraged. Instead, be genuinely pleased that they took even a few seconds out of their busy day to notice your work.  Smile and thank them for stopping by.

I’ve learned something important about people who walk away: sometimes, they come back!  Just because they didn’t buy something this time doesn’t mean you’ve lost them forever.  I’ve had many people seek out my table at a market because they saw my table at a previous market and remembered it.  So treat everybody with respect and kindness, whether they show interest in your products or not.

DO I NEED TO…?

After your first few markets, you may be left wondering about a few more things.  Here are some questions I’ve had to ask myself over the past couple years:

Should I demonstrate my work?  Some crafters–but especially spoon carvers–really enjoy demonstrating their work for potential customers.  However, remember that doing your work and selling your work are two different activities. As a rule, if you’re busy making things, you’re not selling things.

I do, however, bring a few carving tools to show how I work.  It’s fun to show people–especially children–how I can shape a block of wood with a sharp knife.  But you need to understand that, once you start into a demo, you are probably not making a sale–unless you bring the prospective customer quickly back to the finished product on the table.  Ideally, my demo-to-sale spiel sounds something like this:

“I start with a block of wood that looks like it has a spoon in it.  I cut off pieces here and there with a few tools, like this hook knife [makes a couple cuts] and this spokeshave [takes off a couple shavings], and after a while, I have something that looks like this [picks up a finished spoon from the table and hands it to someone].”

Truth be told, I’ve probably lost a few sales because I got so invested in showing how I do my work that I’ve forgotten that I came to sell my work.

Can I take time to shop at the market myself?  It’s ironic that, at any craft market, the people who most appreciate handmade goods are all stuck at their own tables all day.

While you should ordinarily give your table your full attention, it’s okay to leave your table for a few minutes to browse at other tables.  (If you’ve been kind and friendly, the vendors beside you will probably be willing to keep an eye on your product for a few minutes while you shop.)  Just don’t get so lost in that beautiful sea of handmade goods that you forget to come back to your own table.

As you look at other vendors’ tables, do take time to introduce yourself as a vendor. Compliment their work.  If you can, buy it!  I’ve found that other vendors are sometimes my best customers.  They, too, value handcrafted items, but they are more likely to buy your items at the end of the market, once they’ve made a few sales themselves.  (That’s a good reason not to pack up too early!) As long as you’re not neglecting your own table, it’s good to get to know the other crafters around you.

BUILD RELATIONSHIPS

Even if you don’t sell much at a craft market, you can come away with something even more valuable than cash: good relationships.  Most local crafting communities are fairly small-scale, and if you keep coming to craft shows, you’ll meet some of the same people again and again.  You’ll find that some crafters are extroverts, and a few of them come to markets more to socialize than to sell.  They’re fun people to have around, but they also tend not to sell much–and they’re genuinely okay with that.

I’ve benefitted enormously from relationships I’ve built at craft markets.  I’ve been given materials for cheap or free, and I’ve learned valuable techniques that enhance my work.  I’ve learned of up-and-coming markets, and I’ve had a lot of customers referred to me. People I’ve gotten to know have become repeat customers.  There are many side-benefits to developing good relationships.

However, there is a paradox at work here: good things do come from good relationships.  But if you aim only for the good things–the side benefits–you will never build good relationships at all.  Most people can tell when you’re in it only for yourself.  But if you genuinely value relationships, the benefits will come, too.

And maybe that’s one of the best things about selling your work at craft markets.  You don’t have to choose between making money and making friends.

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How to Sell Your Handmade Goods at a Craft Market, part 1: The Display

It took me a few years to learn to make wooden spoons and spatulas that people actually wanted to buy.  But when I started trying to sell my work at local craft markets, I learned something important: selling things is a learned skill, too!

The important difference is that I had nobody to show me how to make spoons.  But I have a daughter who has both talent and experience in presentation and sales.

N at the Craft Table 5 Rivers 2018

She taught me a lot, and while our display could still be improved, we’ve found that it does sell our work.  So I want to pass on what I’ve learned to you.

SCOPE IT OUT

Deciding to sell your handiwork at a market seems like a simple step, until you actually try to do it.  I highly recommend going to the market as a customer first to see if your own handcrafted work will fit in.  Walk around, talk to other vendors, pick up their merchandise, and check the price tags.  If you think your items will fit into this market, find the organizer and ask about becoming a vendor.  Be sure to ask about the table fee and whether you have to bring your own table.  Also find out if you’re expected to have a business license and/or collect sales tax.  (If you are, then unless you are already really committed to making a serious investment in going commercial, you should find another market.)

While you’re there, take a close look at how different vendors display their items.  You’ll find a wide variety of displays, some attractive and effective, and some, well… not so much.  Take mental notes (and even a few pictures) of how the best displays are set up.

DESIGN YOUR DISPLAY

The good news is that you are already a creative, crafty person, so you can approach the design of your display table in the same way that you design a new piece of craft work.  Even if you don’t have your own table, you can build your display at home using a dining table, workbench, or even the floor–as long as you mark out the space that will actually be available on the market’s table.

1. Make a sign with the name of your enterprise and any other information you want potential customers to have.

Holiday Market Craft Table 2018

The sign doesn’t have to be fancy, although you certainly can use your creative skills to make something that looks really cool.  Hand-painted signs are awesome.  But you may want to change your signage occasionally.  A large picture frame with a computer printed sign slipped into it can make a very attractive sign that’s easy to change.  I opted for a medium-sized bulletin board for which I built a collapsable stand.

2. Price your work clearly.  Individual price tags work just fine, but if most of your items are the same price, it’s okay to put your prices on one big sign instead.  How to price your work is a whole different issue, but I’ll say here that you should have a range of prices.  On my table, I always have a few $5 items, even though most of my items are  $10-$20.  But I’m not afraid to put out a couple items priced at $50 or $75.

3. Set out enough items to spread out over the entire table–but not more!

Holiday Market Craft Table 2018

 

Your first time out, you’re not likely to bring too much product, but the more you go to markets, the easier it becomes to over-load your table with merchandise.  A cluttered table is difficult to browse.  But a sparse table won’t draw people’s eyes.  You have to strike the right balance.  Hold back a few items to replace items that you sell.

4. Don’t just lay your items flat on the table.  Use the vertical space.

IMG_7200 (1)

You need to raise some of your product up above table level.  Not only does this allow you to fit more product into a small space, but it also allows you to make your items visible from a distance.  Whatever kind of items you’re making, there’s going to be a good way to use your vertical space.  (If your table is going to be outdoors, be sure that everything is weighed or fastened down securely.  You’d be surprised at what a sudden gust of wind can knock over!)

5. Take pictures. Once you’ve built your display, you need to step back and look at it with an impartial eye.  But don’t look at it directly.  Instead, snap a few pictures from different angles, as if you were an approaching customer, and look at the pictures.  Is the product easily visible?  Are your most appealing items featured prominently?  Is your sign readable?  Is there clutter visible on or around the table?  You’ll be surprised at what a camera will reveal to you.

MONEY

Most creative types don’t like to think about money.  It stresses us out.  But if you’re going to sell your stuff, you have to think about money–at least a little bit.

A lot of customers still come to craft markets with cash to spend.  A surprising number will have exact change, but you do need to bring enough petty cash to make change for several transactions.  You can make things easier on yourself by pricing your items at or close to round numbers–$5, $19, $30, etc.  But if you have a lot of items that cost $6, $17, or $31, you’re going to have to bring a lot more petty cash.

And yes, you do need to be able to process credit card payments.  Fortunately, smartphones have made it pretty easy to do that nowadays.  A lot of vendors use the Square.  I use PayPal Here.  I’m sure there are other options.  They all work pretty much the same way.  You use a little device to scan the credit card, and the company processes the payment, minus a standard transaction fee, often a small percentage of the sale.  If you think the fee is exorbitant, build the fee into your prices–or offer a discount for cash purchases.

EXTRAS

So what about all the other little things that make a market table look really professional?  Should you have professionally-printed business cards?  What about bags to put items in as you sell them?  Those are nice extras to have, but they’re not actually necessary for your first few times out. Simple paper bags can be bought online for cheap, and I think those are a good investment.  They show you care about your handiwork.

People expect crafters to have business cars, so I do provide them.  I think I can count on one hand the number of sales I can confidently attribute to a business card, so I keep them at the back of my table.

IMG_8907

You can get business cards done professionally if you like, but you can also make them yourself.  I make mine using a template provided by my word processing software.  I print them on cardstock and cut them apart with a paper cutter.  It’s cheap and quick.

IT’S ALL WORTH IT

At this point, you’re probably thinking that setting up a simple market table to sell your stuff is a lot more complicated than it seemed at first.  And you’re right.  It is a lot to think about.  I eventually made myself a checklist to ensure I don’t forget anything when I go to a market.  The list has about 30 different items on it.

Just like making things, selling is work–hard work–and that’s why you’ll be getting paid to sell your stuff, not just to make it.  But when your first customer walks away from your table happily holding a handcrafted item that he or she bought from you, it’s all worth it.

So what about you?  If you shop at craft markets, what kinds of displays do you find attractive?  What turns you off?

 

(In the next installment, I’ll share some things I’ve learned about the act of selling–how to engage with customers and encourage them to make a purchase without manipulating them.)

 

 

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Book Review: Cræft by Alexander Langlands

Cræft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts by Alexander Langlands, Norton, 2017. $26.95

You may have noticed that there’s a handicrafts revival going on.  Every month there seems to be a new craft market to shop at, another friend picking up a crafty hobby, and a new DIY social media celebrity to follow. For most of us, it’s just one more curious little corner of modern life.  But if you’ve been wondering about what this whole handicrafts revival really means, I have a book for you.

Langlands Craeft Book 2019

Alexander Langlands is an English archaeologist who has spent the last few years attempting to recreate a number of traditional handicrafts, both professionally for BBC reenactments and in his own home-life in England.  This book is both the story of his adventures in handicrafts and a defense of doing things the “old-fashioned” way.  He begins by defining his keyword, “cræft,” as “wisdom that furnishes the practitioner with a certain power,” which may sound more political than it really is.  (There is, of course, a political element to the book, but Langlands consistently avoids politicization.  It’s a little like reading Wendell Berry without the polemic.)  Each chapter focuses on a different kind of handicraft that Langlands has explored.  There are predictable topics like weaving and basket making, but most of the topics will come as a surprise to American readers—haymaking, skep beehives, thatched roofs, stone walls, and even ponds for watering livestock.

This is not a “how-to” book, and there are few detailed instructions.  It is, rather, an adventure story.  Our hero, the author himself, comes across as a fairly average person.  Although he does have a significant lineage (his Scottish grandfather made wooden golf clubs), he is not distinguished by any exceptional talent or social status, but by his curiosity about his surroundings, his persistence in the face of difficulty, and his willingness to take chances.  He sets out to escape the soulless drudgery of modern, technological life and rediscover older, more meaningful ways to live.  There are episodes detailing the arming of the hero—he discovers a secondhand suit of Harris tweed, and he learns to use a shepherd’s crook.  There is the wise old counsellor—he often quotes from a 10th-century text called the “Colloquy” by a monk called Ælfric.  He meets helpful companions, such as a professional thatcher named Keith and an old shepherd called Mr. Mudge.  There are even numinous objects that, if not exactly magical, definitely have that sort of appeal to the reader—an apple left on an attic rafter is still eatable after being rediscovered six months later.  As an American, I found this English hero especially attractive: like the prototypical American, he finds himself in a strange, forbidding landscape and must learn to make his way in it if he can.

Langlands Craeft Book 2019

Langlands is an explorer who becomes a homesteader, and as an archaeologist, he is also something of a time-traveler, taking us back into earlier ages to discover not only what people did in order to live, but also how and why they did it.  Often, people in the distant past made choices based on the simple availability of materials.  One of the most important themes of the book is that good materials for crafts are all around us—as they always have been.  It’s a different perspective on the current trend toward “locally-sourced” foods and goods.  Instead of seeking out and preferring goods that are “locally sourced,” our hero repeatedly finds himself looking around his local landscape for solutions to immediate problems in his house and garden, and he often finds it necessary to adapt traditional methods of working to the materials that happen to be available.  The book has encouraged me to take a look around my own neighborhood for materials I can experiment with using in my own handicrafts.

The book’s only major drawback is the lack of pictures or illustrations.  While Langlands is an excellent wordsmith, and many of his descriptions are both technically precise and visually evocative, I would not have understood a number of his passages had I not first read an older book called The Forgotten Arts and Crafts, by John Seymour, which is a richly illustrated book about all manner of traditional handicrafts.  I highly recommend getting Seymour’s book and reading it alongside this one.

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Build A Simple, Wooden Storage Crate in an Hour

One of the tests of a competent woodworker is the ability to make a simple, sturdy box to order.  Just this afternoon, my wife was cleaning and reorganizing, and she asked me to make her a crates to help her organize some storage space.  I took some measurements and set right to work.  An hour later, I handed her a crate all ready to use.  I’ve built several crates like this, and here’s how I do it:

Step 1: Rip Your Slats

The crate is built entirely from 1 1/2″ wide slats that I ripped out of a 2X4 on my bandsaw.  (You could just as easily use a table saw or radial arm saw.)  Because these are small crates, I ripped the 2X4 into strips roughly 1/2″ wide.  You may wish to use thicker strips, especially for a larger crate.

Be sure to use stock without large knots, which would get in the way.  Lots of tiny knots are fine, but it pays to be picky.

Wooden Storage Crate 1-2019

Step 2: Build the Ends

When cutting your stock to length, the first step is to determine the size of the interior width and height. Mine will be 6″ wide and 4″ tall on the inside, so I need four pieces of each length: that is, four uprights and four horizontal pieces.  (For a larger crate, you might want six horizontal pieces instead of just four.) It’s hard to plane very short pieces.  So first I cut a 24″ piece for the horizontals and 16″ piece for the uprights, roughly planed each one with a jack plane, and then cut the short pieces out of each one.

Wooden Storage Crate 1-2019

These eight pieces will become the two ends, which I will assemble first.

I set the uprights on top of the horizontal pieces and nail them together like so:

Wooden Storage Crate 1-2019

Be sure that the end grain does not protrude past the long grain on any of the pieces, or you will have trouble later.  Nail these pieces together very securely, either by using 2-3 nails in each corner, or by using long nails that will poke through the backside and be clenched, which is what I’ve done here.  Be sure the nails are not too close to the outside ends, as you will soon be putting even more nails into these pieces.

Step 3: Add the Sides and Bottom

With the end pieces assembled, it is time to cut the sides to length, plane them smooth, and attach them.  Now that you know the exact thickness of the end assemblies, you can measure your inside dimension, add the thickness of both end assemblies, and cut the sides to precise length.

Wooden Storage Crate 1-2019

Nail the sides to the end assemblies, making sure that the vertical members are on the outside and the horizontal members are on the inside.  On each end put in two nails, at least one of which should be driven into the long grain of the upright.  Don’t drive both of them into end grain, or the sides will eventually pull out.

Wooden Storage Crate 1-2019

To avoid splitting the ends, you may want to drill pilot holes for the nails.  With care, you can also toenail the nail so that it penetrates both boards, increasing the strength of the whole assembly.  Just be careful where you place your nails, as you don’t want to hit any of the nails that you’ve already driven into the end assemblies.

Wooden Storage Crate 1-2019

With the sides assembled, you can now determine how many boards you will need for the bottom.  In this case, I want three slats.

Wooden Storage Crate 1-2019

Notice that you will not cut all the slats to the same length.  The ones that go on each side can be the same length as the sides, but the one that goes in the middle can be cut shorter.

Wooden Storage Crate 1-2019

The way you nail on the bottoms depends very much on how you plan to use the crate.  If the crate will need to carry weight, then you should put a couple nails into each end, being sure to penetrate the long grain of the end assemblies.  But in this case, the crate will be slid in and out of a shelf, so the bottom needs only a single nail in each end.  You should take the time to set these nails below the surface of the wood.  Otherwise, if the wood shrinks, the nail heads will stick out and scratch up any surface that the crate slides across.

Wooden Storage Crate 1-2019

With the bottom on, the crate is complete.  At this point, you might wish to ease the corners with a handplane or sandpaper.  You could also apply stain and/or a finish, or even paint the crate.  In my case, I’ll just let regular use age the crate naturally.

Step 4: Fill It Up.

So how exactly are we going to use this crate anyway?

Wooden Storage Crate 1-2019

It’s going to hold extra condiments in the kitchen cupboard, like this.

Wooden Storage Crate 1-2019

And here the crate is at home, where it will live for many years to come (hopefully).

This design is not my own but a very old one that I’ve seen on many old crates.  The basic design is adaptable to a wide range of shapes and sizes.

 

 

 

Posted in Build-Alongs, storage, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Hardest Part of Learning to Sharpen

The other day, I was teaching a friend to sharpen his plane iron, and it got me thinking about sharpening.  Of all the skills I have learned while working wood, sharpening has been the most life-changing. It started with chisels and plane irons, but then I began sharpening my kitchen knives and pocketknives.  I had no idea that steel could get so sharp!  It used to be that dull tools were merely inconvenient, but now I find a dull knife a heartbreaking disappointment.

I say this because I want to share a recent article on sharpening by Chris Schwarz, former editor at Popular Woodworking Magazine and current head of Lost Art Press.  In it, Schwarz reflects (well, more like pontificates) on how few woodworkers actually know how to sharpen an edge tool.  Even the some of the professionals who write for the big-name magazines often lack basic sharpening skills.  He points out that the reason a lot of people don’t like to use hand tools is that they don’t know how to sharpen them:

If you don’t know how to sharpen, everything “hand tools” is impossible and stupid. – Chris Schwarz

 

But when you do learn to sharpen, it opens up a whole world of possibilities.

Sharpening isn’t all that difficult to learn.  But it’s also easy to do it really, really badly.  Like a lot of handicrafts, it’s a skill that is much easier to learn in person than by reading a book or even watching a video.  And that, perhaps, is why sharpening skills are still so rare, even among otherwise competent artisans.  I’ve tried to explain my own sharpening routine to several people over e-mail or even in videos.  Here’s a blog post I did a few years ago on sharpening woodworking tools.  I still stand by my recommendations in that post, but I’m not sure that it could actually teach anybody to sharpen an edge tool.

If your edge can easily shave pine end-grain, it’s sharp.

If you’re going to work with wood at all–or even just carry a pocketknife every day–then do yourself a big favor and learn to sharpen.  Like Schwarz says in the article linked above, it doesn’t matter which method you use.  They all work.  What matters is getting good results repeatedly.

The hardest part of learning to sharpen isn’t selecting the right sharpening stones or even developing the right technique.  It’s finding somebody to show you how.  I’m still trying to figure out the best way to get novice sharpeners together with the people who can teach them to put a keen edge on a piece of steel.

If you’ve learned to sharpen, how did you learn the skill?  Did somebody teach you, or did you do online and figure it out yourself?

Posted in sharpening, skills, teaching, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

The One Essential Hand Tool

I have a favorite hand tool, one which has been with me (in one form or another) for most of my life.   It’s my most-used hand tool, and the one I would be most reluctant to part with.  It’s not my smoothing plane.  It’s not my drawknife or my backsaw.  It’s not even my workbench.

It’s my pocketknife.

The pocketknife is both a tool and a symbol.  It represents competence and readiness.   Somebody who carries a pocketknife–especially if it’s kept sharp–is the sort of person who is ready to confront whatever problems life might present.  Such readiness is always a matter of longstanding habit.  Ask an old farmer if he has his pocketknife on him, and he’s likely to reply, “I’m wearing my pants, aren’t I?”  If I discover in the middle of the day that I’ve left my pocketknife at home, I’m just as distressed as most younger people would be to have lost their cellphone.

Pocket Knives 2018

Growing up in the country, it was only natural that I began to carry a pocketknife at a young age.  I got my first folding knife at 10.  Later I got a Swiss Army Knife that had two blades, a bottle opener, and a corkscrew.  Unsurprisingly, I never used most of those features.  More expensive models had a Phillips head screwdriver in place of the corkscrew, but I never got one of those.  But I carried that Swiss Army knife with pride, and it wore a hole in the right-hand pocket of every pair of jeans I owned.

The pocketknife is the most basic of tools.  At its simplest, it’s a short, steel blade attached to a handle by a hinge to allow it to be carried safely.  That simple design can be (and has been) complicated in any number of ingenious ways, but however slick or complex your pocketknife is, it’s what the blade can do that’s most important.  I’ve used my pocketknife to cut rope, tighten flathead screws, slice sheets of paper into strips, whittle twigs into curious shapes, scrape tape residue off the floor, dig pebbles out of shoe soles, remove staples from walls, scrape a splintering chair rail smooth, and even remove splinters from my hand.

For many of these tasks, the blade doesn’t need to be very sharp, and I suppose that’s why a lot of people’s pocketknives are so dull.  After all, a blade doesn’t have to be sharp to be used as a pry bar or even to open a cardboard box.  Still, a truly sharp blade is far more useful than a dull one–and much safer, too.

It was many years before I learned to really keep my own blades sharp.  The sharpening instructions I saw in books were never adequate, and I had nobody to teach me.  I couldn’t reliably keep a knife sharp until I learned to sharpen plane irons and bench chisels.  As it turns out, the curved blade of a pocketknife can be one of the hardest kinds of edge to sharpen.  And to make things more difficult still, I found that a lot of cheaper pocketknives are made with bad steel, making it nearly impossible to put a keen edge on them at all.

For example, the knife I carried throughout much of high school and college was my “SWAT” knife, pictured below.  As soon as I saw it in a catalog, I just had to have it.  The design of the knife was clearly superior to the old “lock back” knives I had carried previously.  It could be opened and closed with just one hand.

SWAT Pocket Knife

But once I had the knife, I had a terrible time trying to keep it sharp, a problem I could have predicted had I understood the technical language in the catalog specs.  It had said the knife’s blade was made from 440 stainless steel, which, as it turns out, is a bad choice for a knife blade.  440 doesn’t rust easily, but it also doesn’t hold an edge.

I’ve tried out many other different kinds of pocketknives since then.  In college I got a multi-tool made by Gerber.  (It’s a cheaper imitation of the Leatherman, which is what my wife keeps in her purse.)  It has several knife blades as well as screwdrivers, a file, and pliers.  Like most all-purpose tools, it doesn’t do any one job well, but it’s handy in a pinch.  I still keep it in my briefcase.

At some point I also took to carrying the smallest Swiss Army knife on my key ring.  I don’t use its blade much, but the scissors are invaluable for little tasks around the office, and the tweezers come in handy for removing splinters from my kids’ hands.  It’s also a good knife to pull out in situations where I need to cut something but don’t want to scare people by whipping out a larger blade.

Earlier this year, I decided that I was done with cheap pocketknives.  I’m a thoroughgoing cheapskate, but I have realized that the quality of the tools you own should be proportionate to how often you use them.  I don’t mind buying a cheaper tool if I’m not going to use it very often, but if I’m going to use a tool every day, I’m going to get the best I can afford.

Pocket Knife Benchmade Valet 2018

So I did some research and finally settled on a smaller knife made in the USA by Benchmade.  They say that, when it comes to buying a tool, you get a good one and cuss once when you pay for it, or you can get a cheap one and cuss every time you use it.  This pocketknife cost more than four times what I’ve ever paid for a pocketknife before, and I’ve not yet regretted it.  This knife is light and durable, easy to open and close, and, most importantly, takes and holds a keen edge.

I’m not advertising for any particular company here.  All I’m saying is this: if you’re going to use a tool frequently, don’t settle for a cheap one.   A pocketknife is the most essential hand tool you can have.  So get a good one, keep it with you, and keep it sharp.

 

 

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Rebuilding Trunnions on a 14″ Steel City Band Saw

Not long ago, a friend offered to give me his old bandsaw, which he was replacing with a newer, bigger model.  The only catch: the old bandsaw had two broken parts, and because the manufacturer has gone out of business, replacement parts were not available.  I accepted the offer anyway.  This is the story of how I fabricated replacement parts out of commonly-available materials.

The bandsaw is a 14″ model, built by Steel City.  The broken parts are the trunnions, which are the curved pieces that attach the table to the base and allow the table to tilt in order to make an angled cut.  Although this bandsaw is solidly built, I understand from my internet research that it’s not uncommon for the trunnions to break.  They’re just made from pot metal.

Bandsaw Broken Trunnion 2018

This is the underside of the bandsaw table, and you can see how the curved parts have just crumbled away.

Here’s how I made my own replacements for these parts.

First, I should explain that, while the original trunnions allow the table to tilt, I really don’t need that feature. I just need the table to sit solidly on the base.  So I made replacements with  some hard maple blocks, sawed to the right radius, and attached them to the table with angle iron.

Bandsaw Trunnion Repair 2018

Probably the hardest part was making sure the radius was a match. I started by trying to trace one of the broken trunnions, but I couldn’t get the block close enough to the radius to get an accurate trace. So I just used the mating surface, like this. I went ahead and traced out the whole radius, but in reality, only about a half of the radius is in contact with the base.

I sawed out the radius on my old bandsaw (which I thankfully still have). If I hadn’t had that, I would have resorted to a coping saw.

Bandsaw Trunnion Repair 2018

I clamped the two pieces together and smoothed out the saw marks with a file. It doesn’t need to be especially smooth or pretty, but the trunnions do need to be exactly the same size.

Bandsaw Trunnion Repair 2018

After drilling through them and counter-boring the tops for the bolt head, they fit nicely onto the base! The bolt hole is drilled oversize, which provides just a bit of wiggle-room in fitting everything together. I probably should have also drilled the counter-bore a little bit oversize, too, but this worked. (I did have to buy longer bolts, too.)

Bandsaw Trunnion Repair 2018

Each trunnion is attached to the bottom of the table with three bolts.  I used the old, broken trunnion to figure out how long each piece of angle-iron should be. I attached the angle-iron to the wooden blocks with screws, and then I drilled out the oversize holes in the angle iron for the bolts that will attach the new trunnions to the underside of the table.

Bandsaw Trunnion Repair 2018

Finally, I bolted the new trunnions onto the table. I ended up putting in the bolts loosely, setting the whole thing on the base to get the trunnions positioned correctly (because of the oversize mounting holes, there’s a bit of wiggle room), and then snugging down the bolts.

Now for a confession: what you’ve just read is the streamlined version of the process I actually went through to fabricate these parts. I had to make a number of little adjustments here and there, and there were some missteps along the way. For example, when I went to bolt the trunnions to the bottom of the table, I found that I had made them just a little bit too wide, and while the mounting bolts fit okay, their washers didn’t. I think I forgot to factor in the thickness of the angle iron on both sides when cutting the blocks to thickness! So I just used a grinder to take 1/8″ off the edge of each washer. Another funny thing: I accidentally counter-bored the wrong side of the trunnions at first (visible in the picture above). But it doesn’t affect how they mate to the base, so I just left it there.

But now the table sits securely. Because the bolt holes are oversized, it is possible to adjust the table by a few degrees in either direction, which is just as well because I needed to use the set-screw to get everything leveled.

Bandsaw Trunnion Repair 2018

So now the saw is usable again.

Posted in Wood and Woodwork | 22 Comments