When a Furniture Maker Buys Furniture

The other day I suddenly realized that, to my knowledge, I have never actually bought a piece of furniture. When we were newlyweds, my wife and I gladly accepted nearly any secondhand (or third- or fourth-hand) furniture that was offered to us. Then I began building furniture for myself. So after nearly 20 years of marriage, my wife and I had still never bought furniture.

Until recently. She and I were on a casual date, browsing local antique stores looking for vintage tools and other household goods. We pulled up in front of one shop we’d never visited before, and immediately we spotted this oak stool on the front porch along with a bunch of other grimy chairs. Before we even got in the door, I had decided that this was coming home with us.

In terms of styling and overall dimensions, this piece is clearly a “joint stool” or “joined stool,” modeled on a 16th-17th-century form–as popularized today by Peter Follansbee. (Here he is demonstrating construction on Roy Underhill’s Woodwright’s Shop.) I’ve never seen a piece quite like this in the wild before–certainly not down here on the Gulf Coast where most of the good antiques are made from solid mahogany and displayed in antebellum house-museums.

Wanting to know more about this stool, the first thing I did was turn it upside down. Looking at the hidden surfaces will tell you a lot about a piece’s construction–and may give glues as to when it was made. It has no manufacturer’s marks anywhere, which suggests to me that it might not be factory-made.

The frame does seem to be assembled using mortise-and-tenon joints, all of which are extremely tight. I think I can just see a bit of a tenon and shoulder on the underside of one of the rails (above). However, I believe that the joints are not actually drawbored. The peg in the leg is too low to serve much purpose in drawboring, and it doesn’t go all the way through the leg. I’m pretty sure it’s a decorative feature, though I appreciate the fact that whoever built this was paying close enough to the design of a genuine 17th-century joint stool to replicate the look of a drawbored joint.

The underside of the top and the backs of the rails are all planed straight and smooth, and all the pieces are planed to exactly the same thickness–a clear sign that the stock was prepped by machine rather than by hand. The moldings are quite regular, though I can’t tell if they were made by a powered router or by a set of molding planes.

It has also been very lightly used over the years.

There is very little wear on the bottom of the feet, indicating that it hasn’t been dragged across very many floors. The chuck marks from the lathe are still clearly visible on the bottom of each foot. I’m guessing it spent most of its life as a side table and not as a sitting stool.

The legs are splayed a little bit, but not nearly so much as a 17th-century joint stool’s would be. Still, it’s fairly stable in use. The top is perhaps the most curious part of the whole piece. It’s glued up from three pieces of solid oak, with a traditional thumbnail profile all the way around. But it’s not flat. Instead, it is slightly concave across the grain, and while the original glue joints have separated on the ends, the top is still quite solid. The concavity is entirely intentional, and the top rails are even scooped out a bit to accommodate the curvature. It makes the stool remarkably comfortable to sit on.

But I cannot for the life of me see how the top is attached. There are no fasteners anywhere to be seen. I can only assume it is assembled with blind dowels or something of the sort.

I can’t tell when this stool might have been built, but my best guess is sometime in the middle of the 20th century. Why then? Because there seems to have been a short-lived resurgence of 17th-century-style furniture in the mid-20th century, and this stool fits that description perfectly. The construction methods fit that era, too.

Regardless of its age, it is proving useful at home. As soon as I brought it home and cleaned it up, the stool immediately became a favorite in our house. It’s just the right height for perching on, whether one is a kid or a grownup.

I am especially fond of this piece because I have owned Follansbee and Alexander’s book Make a Joint Stool from a Tree (pictured above) for almost a decade now. I really enjoyed it when I first read it, and I have always meant to make myself a couple joint stools. But I’ve never gotten around to it. Now, the enthusiastic reception that this little stool has gotten in my house has definitely bumped the joint stool to the top of my list. I have a feeling that everyone in the family is going to want one.

I’m especially excited to build my own joint stool because I now have a model to work from. I definitely won’t copy this one exactly, but having one in my hands gives me a concrete place to start–especially in terms of overall dimensions. And that’s part of the value of buying a piece of antique furniture. Not only have I acquired a piece of high-quality furniture at a bargain price, but I am also inspired to make something like it.

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Names on Tools: Past and Future Owners

Awhile back, I published a post about vintage tools with previous owners’ names on them. While it’s fun to imagine (and sometimes deduce) the character of the men who owned and used these tools before they came into my hands, I have other tools whose owners (past and future) are better known to me.

Here are three handsaws (and one chisel) that have family significance–and that get used regularly in my shop.

The first saw is a little panel saw for which I made a replacement handle several years ago. It’s special for a couple of reasons. First, the handle is made spalted pecan wood that came from a neighborhood tree. It is wood that I dried, milled, and shaped myself. Second, the handle is smaller than a normal one. I modeled it on a Disston 7 handle, but I scaled it down by 75% for my kids to use, and right now it fits their hands perfectly. My son, who is in elementary school, especially enjoys sawing with it. Eventually he will grow out of it, but that will be a few years yet–and when he does, I’ll set this saw aside for grandkids to use.

The second saw is a peculiar one. The saw blade has no etch that might identify it (or none that I can see), but its size and shape is quite common in old saws. The puzzling part is the handle, which is made from a ring-porous wood–definitely not the traditional apple or beech wood handles found on most vintage hand saws. The top of the handle is not exactly flush with the top of the blade. And while most saw handles are about 7/8″ thick, this one is only 3/4″. All that leads me to believe this handle may be a shop-made replacement.

The thinner handle makes this saw ideal for a woodworker who has a smaller-than-average frame, so this saw now belongs to one of my daughters. When I cleaned it up, I carved her initials in the handle. Perhaps in another hundred years, some woodworker will be wondering who “KGS” was.

The final saw, however, has initials of someone who is long past but whose name I do know.

When my father-in-law gave this saw to me, he pointed out a detail that I might have taken me years to see on my own. The initials “HLT” were neatly stamped into the handle. He told me that those were the initials of his great-grandfather, who had owned the saw. Given that this saw dates from 1878-88 (judging by the medallion), I don’t doubt him.

This saw shows a lot of signs of wear–the top horn broke off long ago, and the nib seems to have been filed off. But the saw still gets used regularly in my work. I’ve got a lot of respect for a tool that’s still going strong after 140+ years!

And speaking of grandpas, the final tool I’m featuring today belonged to my own grandpa.

I don’t recall when I first picked this chisel out of a bunch of tools at my parents’ house, but I’m glad I did. Back then, this chisel had a much shorter handle–probably one that had been broken off at one point, and it had a ring fitted to the end that, upon close inspection, appeared to be a section of iron pipe.

The chisel itself has no maker’s mark anywhere on it, but it is made of very good steel. It takes and holds a very keen edge, and it’s the perfect size (1 1/4″) for many paring tasks at the workbench.

Eventually I used a friend’s lathe to turn a new handle for the chisel out of pecan–yes, the same tree from which I made the saw handle above. And I took the old ring and fitted it to the end of the handle. Even though I almost never strike the chisel handle with a mallet, I felt that the ring and the chisel had been together for so long that they ought to stay together. I still reach for this chisel more than just about any other in my collection.

I do enjoy using tools that have a story. But a story in itself doesn’t make a tool good. I don’t go on using these tools just out of sentiment. I use them because they are very well-made, and because they suit my purposes. That’s one reason they’ve lasted as long as they have. And boy am I glad they have!

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Meet My Dumb Apprentices

When I began working wood in earnest more than 15 years ago, I was working almost exclusively with hand tools, by choice but also by necessity. Most operations–smoothing boards and joining them together–were fun and even efficient with a fairly small set of well-tuned hand tools. But others were not. When it came to thicknessing wood, or sawing thick pieces of wood into thinner ones, I was frustrated.

Back in the days of pre-industrial woodworking (before the 20th century, more or less), professional joiners seem not to have done those operations very much. While they were certainly capable of thicknessing a board by hand or sawing their own veneer out of a board, they mostly bought their wood in standard thicknesses (1/2″, 1″, 2″, etc.) from professional sawyers. But I have been working largely with construction-grade lumber (which comes in standard 1 1/2″ thickness) as well as wood I’ve cut from the log myself, all of which takes a lot of muscle power to dimension by hand.

So over the years, I have integrated a few machines into my workflow. Although I don’t enjoy working with the machines nearly as much as I enjoy working with my hand tools, I do appreciate the way in which they do so much of the necessary grunt-work, freeing me to focus more on doing joinery by hand.

They are my dumb apprentices in the strict sense of the term–inarticulate helpers that serve a humble but necessary purpose.

Bandsaws

My bandsaws are probably the most important power tools I have, and the ones I use the most. I have two: a 14″ Steel City saw and an older 12″ Craftsman saw.

The bigger saw is just right for resawing thick stock into thinner pieces, as well as for breaking sections of logs down into rough boards. I keep a wide resaw blade in it permanently, and some time ago I attached a shop-made outfeed table to the table, greatly increasing the saw’s usefulness.

The smaller Craftsman bandsaw was my first bandsaw, and it continued to earn its keep even after I got the bigger one. I use the Craftsman to rough out blanks for spoons and spatulas. It’s not a powerful saw, but it’s simply-constructed and is fairly easy to keep in working order.

Both of these saws came to me as fixer-uppers, and they have both challenged me to become a troupleshooter/mechanic, replacing or even fabricating worn parts as well as keeping everything adjusted properly. Of all my power tools, my bandsaws are the ones with the most finicky adjustment.

Planer

I do not use my electric planer very often, but when I do need it I am very glad I have it. DeWalt makes two homeowner-grade planers, and this is the larger (13″) one.

As soon as I acquired this planer, I built a wheeled stand for it. Because it is very loud and spews a large amount of wood chips, it is a strictly outdoor tool. I wheel it out into the yard and set it up wherever I think the grass could stand to have a bit of mulch (often near a bare patch). I put in my earplugs, and I start feeding boards into it.

I have been very pleased with how much physical work this tool has saved me. While it won’t make boards straight like a proper jointer would, it does have a long enough bed that minor irregularities can be planed out, resulting in surprisingly straight workpieces that need only smooth planing by hand. And being able to quickly bring several boards down to precisely the same thickness has been very gratifying.

The planer is one of those tools that I emphatically don’t enjoy using. It’s heavy, loud, and messy. But I like the results. So I keep it around.

Drill Press

My drill press might be the only power tool that I actually enjoy using. This floor-standing drill press was made for Craftsman by King Seeley, probably back in the 1950s.

This machine is a workhorse. It purrs like a kitten and has required absolutely no maintenance since I replaced the power cord and switch a few years ago. I also love the art-deco styling, and I wish I could shine it up and keep it in a climate-controlled environment.

I don’t use a drill press all that often in the course of my regular joinery work, so this tool often sits idle. I have, however, been known to drill out large mortises with a Forsner bit before squaring them up with a chisel. With a wire wheel chucked into it, I can gently clean rust off of hand tools I have acquired second-hand.

I use my drill press mainly for pipe-making. Drilling a pipe accurately requires very precise boring, especially of the airway. While I could theoretically do that by hand, the drill press makes such operations predictably accurate.

Bench Grinder

The bench grinder is a dirty, utilitarian tool that I would not be without.

I inherited this grinder from my grandfather. My grandmother remembers him using it to sharpen kitchen knives. It still runs perfectly. On one side I keep a good Norton wheel with a Veritas tool rest, which I use to re-grind chisels and plane irons as necessary. On the other side is a very worn wheel (which was on the grinder when I received it) that I use for rough shaping tasks. I always keep a tub of water nearby for regularly cooling the metal I’m grinding.

While all my other dumb apprentices make direct contact with wood, this one doesn’t. Instead, the grinder keeps other tools in working order. While the vast majority of my sharpening is done at my workbench with traditional whetstones, sometimes an edge gets damaged and needs to be re-ground. That is where the grinder comes into its own. This grinder has saved me a lot of time–and I would rather spend my limited time working wood than trying to hone a chip out of an edge on a whetstone.

Chainsaw

All of the other dumb apprentices you’ve met have been able to stand up on their own, but this last one needs to be carried.

My chainsaw has proved to be an invaluable tool time and again. Not only have I been able to help neighbors clear downed trees after hurricanes, but I’ve used it as I collect wood for spoons and other items as well. When I get a call from a friend who has had a tree come down, whether an oak or a cherry or some other species, I can carry my chainsaw over, cut the log into manageable lengths, and split the log with my sledge and wedges. It’s a perfect balance of modern machine-power and pre-modern muscle-power.

My saw is a Stihl 250 with an 18″ bar, which means that with care I can cut up a log that is over two feet in diameter (as in the picture above). Kept sharp, it cuts quite effectively. It is a dangerous tool, and I never pick it up without a little trepidation. Of all my dumb apprentices, it is the one that could do me the most damage if something went wrong.

I Promise I’m Not Amish

I’m afraid that sometimes I give the impression that I’m dedicated to 100%-unplugged woodworking, maybe out of some weird fascination with Amish ways of life. But that’s not true. I love my hand tools, and perhaps I go on using them partly out of a stubborn desire to resist the corruptions of the modern world–and still more to feel independent. But I do depend on these and other machines to get my work done.

Even though I don’t talk about these machines much on this blog, I would be hard-pressed to identify a project I’ve built in the last five years that hasn’t involved at least one of these machines. So I thought it appropriate introduce my dumb apprentices to you and express my gratitude for all the labor they save me.

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Building the Mule Chest

Most of the time my projects begin because I have a problem I need to solve, and sometimes they begin with me reading a book. This time it was both. The book I’ve been reading is The Anarchist’s Design Book by Chris Schwarz. The problem I needed to solve was my daughters’ lack of storage space in their shared bedroom.

First, the problem: the girls needed a place to store extra bed linens and blankets. And they also needed a place to store personal keepsakes–special papers, little toys, and other personal items that wouldn’t go in their dresser drawers.

Then, the book: The Anarchist’s Design Book gives several design options for what is traditionally called a “mule chest”–that is, a blanket chest with one or more drawers beneath the chest. (Schwarz figures that the term “mule chest” comes from the fact that the chest is a cross between a blanket chest and a chest of drawers, just as a mule is a cross between a donkey and a horse.) This sounded like a good solution to my daughers’ storage problem.

Oh, and there was one other problem: thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, wood prices this summer have been astronomical. Prices for construction-grade pine in my area had more than tripled over the past year! I had planned to build a few projects this last summer but decided against it because of the cost of the wood.

So I set myself a challenge. Could I build this entire chest using only wood I already had on hand? As I picked through my stash of lumber, I felt sure that I could–if I didn’t mind some odd choices here and there.

It took me quite some time to figure out how to get every necessary part out of the wood I had. I spent a whole day sorting wood, cutting pieces to rough size, and planing them down with the electric planer. Although I intended to do most of the building by hand, I relied on my electric tools to reduce the boards to approximate size and shape at first. After that, I used my hand tools almost exclusively to bring all the pieces down to exact size and fit them together.

The sides are construction-grade pine, which is salvaged from old scaffolding boards I planed down. There are some stray screw holes here and there, but that’s just character–nothing that will affect the strength of the finished chest. The top, the front, and the drawer fronts are all cut from two big cypress boards that were given to me some years ago.

The basic construction of this chest is very simple. The front and back of the chest are rabbeted and then nailed onto the sides. The bottom of the chest, which is eastern red cedar, is captured in dadoes cut into the sides.

I got lots of practice cutting rabbets by hand. It’s a simple, four-step process. First I mark the rabbet across the width of the board using a marking knife on the face and a marking gauge on the end. Next, I saw the shoulder with a backsaw to the right depth. After that, I split off most of the waste with a chisel and mallet. Finally, I plane the rabbet to finished depth.

These rabbets are especially wide, so I planed next to the shoulder with my shoulder plane and removed the rest with a regular block plane. It left me wishing I had a rabbeting block plane, but these two planes work together very well.

Here you can get a good idea about how the upper section of the chest is constructed. Boards are rabbeted on the ends and then nailed onto the sides through the rabbets. The boards are also shiplapped with each other in order to allow for wood movement. I could have glued up the front and back into solid panels, but it was faster to shiplap them than it would have been to wait for the glue to dry.

I went back and forth on drawer construction methods. Since the rest of the chest was nailed together, I considered just rabbeting the drawer fronts and back, and then nailing on the sides. My kitchen drawers are constructed that way and have stood up to decades of daily use. Then, almost before I realized what I was doing, I found myself laying out half-blind dovetails on the drawer parts. Why? Because that’s how I make drawers, I guess. Even on a nailed-together chest, drawers get dovetailed.

Although most of the chest is made of softwoods, the drawer sides are made from some black walnut offcuts with a lot of sapwood and some deep gouging in places–you can see one such place on the side of the lower drawer in this picture. It’s one of those odd wood choices that I hope some conservator will be puzzling over in a couple hundred years.

I did buy strap hinges to attach the top, though I had to bend the lower parts of the hinges to fit. I scored the metal with a hacksaw and then bent the hinges in a vise with a hammer. I’m not much good at metalworking, but I get by.

The battens for the underside of the lid are cherry scraps–another odd pairing of hardwood with softwoods. Even the cords that hold the lid were salvaged from an old window blind. The only parts of this chest I bought for the project were the hinges and the drawer knobs–I even had all the nails on hand already.

I had to build this chest fairly quickly, since school was starting and my free time was quickly becoming more limited. The carcass is not as square as I’d like it to be, though you probably wouldn’t notice unless you approached the finished piece with a framing square.

For a finish, I opted for as simple an oil finish as possible. I applied the Danish oil on my porch while the remnants of Hurricane Ida were blowing past. I was able to apply the finish at mid-day and move the chest back into the house that same evening.

This is not the most refined pieces of furniture I’ve built, and in several places I let haste override precision. But in the end, this chest solved our problem. Extra bed linens fit in the top (with room to spare!), and the girls have a little more private storage space–which is so important when you’re sharing a room with a sibling.

Posted in Boxes, Build-Alongs, Furniture, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

De-Cluttering Your Time: 3 Keys to Reducing Screen-Time

Last week I said I wanted to reduce the amount of time I spent on social media–essentially de-clutter my time just like I’m trying to de-clutter my space. The hope was that I could make more time for doing things I really enjoy, especially woodworking.

One idea is to quit social media cold-turkey. And there are days I’m tempted to just delete the apps from my phone. If I felt like I really couldn’t control my social media use any other way, this would be the best option. I’ve already stopped posting to Instagram, for example, mainly because I don’t find that the platform lends itself to the kinds of interactions I enjoy. It’s a platform that thrives on constant self-promotion, which I am not into. But I’m still on Facebook, not only because that’s where all the wedding/birth/death announcements are these days, but also because that’s where I interact with people who buy my spoons and pipes.

And it’s not just social media that sucks up my time. I can easily burn an hour reading articles that come across my news aggregator app. I also use my phone to check the weather, check e-mail, listen to podcasts and audio books, and even look up words in my dictionary app. I don’t necessarily want to do less of all these things, but I also don’t want my phone taking up large blocks of my attention when I could (or should) be doing other things.

Of course, if you want to spend less time on your phone, someone will quickly tell you “There’s an app for that!” Well, much as I enjoy the irony of applying a technological solution to a problem caused (or at least instigated) by the technology in the first place, I’m inclined toward lower-tech solutions.

After considering the matter over the past couple weeks and doing a few little experiments on my own behavior and thought-processes, here are three ways I’ve found to reduce the amount of time I waste on my phone:

  1. Leave it out of reach. If my phone is in my hand, in my pocket, or right next to me, it’s all too easy to pick it up in a thoughtless moment of boredom and immediately become engrossed in it. But if I have to take just one extra step (literally) to pick up my phone, it gives me time to think about why I’m actually reaching for it. So I’ve taken to leaving it on a shelf just out of normal reach. I know it’s there, and I can hear it ring if I really need it. But I’m far less likely to pick it up thoughtlessly if I have to actually get up and reach for it when I want it.
  2. Ask myself “Why?” While I’m walking over to pick up my phone, I can ask myself why I’m actually reaching for it. Am I bored or anxious and wanting distraction? Or do I actually intend to do something meaningful when I pick up my phone? I’m sure I’m not the only one who has picked up his phone with every intention of, say, making a necessary phone call, but mindlessly tapped a social media app instead–and then realized an hour later that he still hasn’t made that call. But if I keep my goal in mind, I’m less likely to get sidetracked.
  3. Keep alternatives available. One of the reasons I do reach for my phone a lot is that I’m a “compulsive reader”(in my mom’s words). I love becoming engrossed in reading material, and often when I’m scrolling Facebook I’m really just looking for something interesting to read. (I do have a lot of Facebook friends who post interesting articles, so it’s not always a fool’s errand.) So I’ve started leaving more books and even magazines around the house in strategic locations–places where I’m likely to be when I want to reach for my phone.

I’m told that one of the keys to beating a bad habit is to replace it with a good habit, so I’m focusing the most on this last one. When I want to reach for my phone, I am trying to think of not just one but three alternatives. Instead of scrolling Facebook or my news app, could I…

  • Read something on paper?
  • Find someone to interact with in person (especially one of my kids)?
  • Do a small task, like putting something away or cleaning something?

And if the answer to all of those is “no,” then maybe this really is a good time for social media.

Admittedly, reducing my social media time is proving much more difficult in practice than in theory. I still find myself scrolling on my phone and then realize, “Wait, I was going to not do this so much!” But the days I have intentionally followed through on my plan have been more enjoyable than the others, and that gives me hope.

It also gives me a bit more time for woodworking, and I’m now in the middle of a fun project that I hope to chronicle here soon. So if you’ve been wondering what happened to all the woodworking content, it should be back in the next couple weeks.

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How to Do Woodworking on 24 Hours a Day

There is ample historical evidence that at the beginning of the 20th century, many people felt that their lives were so rushed that they never had enough time to do the things that they really wanted to do. Back then, many people were feeling constantly hurried as they rushed from home to work and back again, only to waste their evenings doing nothing in particular because they always came home from work too tired to do anything else. And it seems that people were increasingly both bored and anxious–bored with the monotony of modern life and anxious that they would never have time to achieve their lifelong goals of financial stability, international travel, and educational self-improvement.

Sound familiar?

The times have not changed.

In 1908, an Englishman named Arnold Bennett published a short book called How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. (This readable little volume is in the public domain and widely available for cheap or free online.) In the book, Bennett observes that although there was much practical advice available on living within one’s financial means, there was almost none on how to really live within one’s temporal means, as opposed to merely existing mindlessly from one moment to the next.

Everyone complains that they “don’t have enough time” to do what they want to do. Bennett turns the complaint around: you have all the time that will ever exist for you. Time is the one thing you always have exactly the same amount of. Time is the only resource that is distributed with absolute equity–every one of us is given exactly the same amount each day to spend as we will, and we all part with every minute at precisely the same rate of speed.

What we really mean when we say “I don’t have enough time” is that we have filled up our minutes and hours with activities that are unsatisfying. Bennett goes on to make practical suggestions for using your down-time more productively, whether that be reading a good book while on the commuter train (instead of skimming a newspaper) and taking an hour or so every other evening to work on something you actually want to do (instead of dabbling at the piano or nodding over a book, and then smoking and drinking well into the night). These days in the USA, we commute mainly by car instead of by train, and we waste time in the evenings watching TV or scrolling social media, but our basic situation really has not changed much in a century and a quarter.

Bennett points out that, when we get home from work we will protest to ourselves that “we’re tired,” when in reality we are almost never as tired as we think we are. We do have energy left over for self-improvement. Bennett’s book is really more about mental self-discipline than it is about time-management, but he has helped me recognize something about myself. Often when I think I’m tired, what I really am is bored–suffering from that low-level fatigue that comes from being employed doing tasks that are not very demanding physically but that do require mental concentration.

I was reminded of Bennett’s book the other day as I was listening to episode #31 of the Mortise & Tenon Podcast, in which the M&T publishers were discussing the best ways to learn new woodworking skills. They pointed out that most of us don’t have the wherewithal to take week-long classes in, say, chair-making or marquetry, but that we probably do have 10-15 minutes a day that we could devote to woodworking. If I can walk up to my workbench and plane one board flat or chop one mortise before breakfast or after dinner, I can gradually build up valuable skills.

I must admit, though, that the 15-minutes-a-day program has never worked particularly well for me, however well it may work for others.

My first problem with the 15-minutes-a-day approach is that it often takes me 10-15 minutes just to clear off my workbench to the point at which I can actually do something at it. My recent series of blog posts on de-cluttering grew out of a personal attempt to correct that underlying problem, and lately I have found myself able to walk up to my workbench, get out a couple of tools, and complete a 10-minute task. That’s been very satisfying.

My other problem with the 15-minutes-a-day approach is my own temperament. I am not very productive when I’m moving quickly from one task to another. I don’t get much done working 10 minutes at a time. Instead, I am more productive when I am concentrating solely on one project for at least an hour at a time. And I do my best work in marathon sessions of half a day or more.

As it turns out, our brains are wired for this. Cal Newport’s book Deep Work explains how our attempts at “multitasking” are severely counter-productive, and that we humans do our best when we get into the habit of focusing on one task at a time and minimizing interruptions. There’s a lot of psychological and neurological research to back this up. As I read Newport’s book, I was reminded of how I was able to write my doctoral dissertation in eight months: working on it from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 or 2:00 p.m. three days a week.

That’s also how I like to complete my woodworking projects: in four- to six-hour sessions during vacation times or long weekends. That’s how I have completed virtually every major project I’ve ever done, from bed frames to bookshelves.

But that approach, I know, is not always possible. During my busy seasons at work, I will often go six weeks without ever touching my tools. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it helps me really appreciate my workshop time once I do get back to it. But for many of us, 15 minutes may be all we can reasonably devote to working wood each day.

However, I have come to the conclusion that making time for woodworking is a lot like making space in the shop. We all have a limited amount, so if we want to make space for one thing, something else has to go. And for most of us, what really needs to go is clutter.

Much of my free time is taken up with electronic clutter–and yours probably is, too. Every Sunday morning my heart sinks a little when I get the weekly notification on my phone that tells me how much time I’ve spent on it each day. And while some of that “screen time” is taken up with podcasts that I listen to in the car or while washing dishes, a shockingly large amount is social media.

Just as I need to deal with mental clutter-creators every time I work in my shop, so I need to deal with my thought processes that are causing me to waste time. I am still thinking through the best ways to ensure I’m spending less time on social media when I could (or should) be doing more satisfying things. I have some ideas, but I want to try them out before writing anything more about them here.

Looking honestly at the problem is a necessary first step, though it’s not the same thing as solving it. At some level, I think we all understand that the smartphone is the enemy of productivity. Our favorite apps (especially games and social media) are cheap substitutes for genuine productivity, real leisure, and meaningful social interaction. We pick up our phones because we are bored and lonely, and that quickly turns into a genuine addiction. I can lose 45 minutes on my phone without even realizing it–and that, of course, is what every social media platform is intentionally designed to get me to do. I know all this, but I keep falling for it.

I do, of course, recognize the irony in the fact that you might be reading this blog post instead of doing some actual woodworking. I’m in the same boat: I am often looking at social media posts about woodworking, when I could be working wood myself. So let me use this technology subversively for a minute. Shut off the screen, and go make some progress on whatever you’ve got on your workbench. I’m going to go and do the same while I think about ways to alter my mental habits so that I pick up my phone less frequently.

If you have figured out ways to break the smartphone addiction, leave a comment and tell us all about it.

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

Beating the Clutter-Creators: Habits and Strategies

There are many de-cluttering schemes out there, and because I live in a small house with a fairly large family, I have gone through many de-cluttering events, from simple tidying to annual cleaning to outright purges. In her book Making Space, Clutter Free, professional organizer Tracy McCubbin gives a clear and logical procedure for doing a massive de-cluttering project, and I won’t try to replicate that here. If you have found yourself crowded out of your workspace (or your whole living space) by clutter, I recommend reading the whole book.

De-cluttering your workspace can present a number of unique challenges, however. Not only must shops have a lot more storage than practically any other space in the house (other than the kitchen), but workshops are always in flux. Materials are always coming in, and (hopefully) finished products are always coming out. Tools get moved around, upgraded, or even replaced. Complicated projects have to be left in pieces, often for weeks, as you make time to work on them here and there. And homeless objects from the rest of the house tend to migrate toward the workspace.

When I have to do a major de-cluttering job in my workspace, here are the steps I normally take to end up with a workspace I can actually use regularly.

1. Schedule it.

De-cluttering doesn’t happen by accident. I’ve done this enough to know that I need to set aside at least a couple hours for even a small de-cluttering job—such as my workbench or one of my wood storage racks.

It is okay to do the work in stages, a little bit at a time. Especially if you find you’ve got a lot of mental clutter-creators to deal with, you’re going to need to start small. But I’ve also found that starting small is just that—a start. Eventually I need to go through everything. So setting aside a whole day or even a long weekend might be more realistic.

2. Come to terms with your mental blocks as you sort.

Recognize when you’re hanging on to junk because of a “someday” that will likely never come, or when you’re unwilling to let something go just because it’s old or you paid a lot for it. Saying these things out loud to yourself can help you sort out what needs to go and what needs to stay: “I’m only holding onto this because it was given to me.” “Keeping this around is not a bargain.” “Realistically, I’m never going to use this.” “I don’t do this kind of work anymore.”

It really helps to have someone else involved, but be careful who you ask for help. You need someone who has a backbone, not an enabler. You need somebody who can encourage you to let go, not somebody who has just as many (or more) mental clutter-creators as you do. Better to do this alone than with someone who enables clutter.

3. Make sure it doesn’t come back.

This is the hard part–but also the most important! It’s one thing to acknowledge you have a problem, which as we all know is the first step toward recovery. But changing mental habits is a much longer process. I am not the person to give general advice on this, but here are a few things I’m doing now that are helping to keep the clutter at bay.

A. Establishing new routines.

I have begun scheduling in time regularly for cleaning and tidying. I know that it takes me about 30 minutes for me to sharpen up my tools, clean them up, put them away, and sweep up my workspace. So if I want to walk away from my workbench at 5:00, that means I have to be driving in my last nail at 4:30. 

I have also realized that I tend to leave tools out for longer than I need to during a project. Now, when I put down a tool, I ask myself if I’m going to pick it up again within the next hour. If the answer is “no,” then I put it away. The time it takes to get it out again is always less than the time it takes to move it around the workbench five times as things pile up around it.

B. Use what I have.

I am trying to plan more of my projects around wood and hardware I already have on hand, even if that means altering the design in little ways to accommodate my materials. I always check my stash of wood and fasteners as I am planning out a project so I don’t end up buying materials I already own.

C. When something comes in, something else goes out.

This has become my rule for saving off-cuts. If my off-cut box is full, and I have an off-cut I want to save, then I have to find another off-cut that goes in the burn bin. In doing so, I have been able to cull wood from my off-cut box that is not actually worth saving, and I have been able to steadily increase the quality of the wood in my off-cut box—making me all the more happy to use it.

In the same way, I’m trying hard not to adopt a vintage tool to restore until I’ve restored the ones I have. This is harder because sometimes vintage tools come at inopportune times, but I’m trying to admit to myself when I’ve got more than I can deal with in the near future.

D. Lead us not into temptation.

Recovering alcoholics don’t go to bars. And I’ve cut down on the number of antique malls I visit. This happened to me gradually, as I came to the point where I had the tools I needed to build the things I wanted to make.

It’s been harder to say “no thanks” to free wood. But I’ve become more and more picky about the quality of logs I salvage. Turning logs into boards takes a lot of time, and I have only so much space to store wood for the year or three it’s going to take to dry.

E. Usable storage, not Studley storage.

We all love the concept of the Studley tool chest, where every tool is lovingly ensconced in a custom-made niche in a compact but ingeniously-arranged space. But Studley was a professional who did a very specific kind of work for which he needed and owned a fairly specialized set of tools.

Most of us are jacks-of-all-trades. We don’t need each tool French-fit into a custom-built niche. A peg in the wall is good enough to hang a handsaw on. A nailed-together box is good enough to store handplanes. Use your vertical and overhead space, too, especially for things you need to access only occasionally. I use old metal tea tins for hardware.

There are plenty of great organizational schemes in the woodworking books and magazines, but don’t go crazy here. You can get ready-made cabinets at the local salvage warehouse. Screw some plywood onto the top of them and you’ve got yourself a chop-saw station. Shop furniture should not be fine furniture.

Time spent doing practical organizing usually pays dividends—you can start a project immediately; you don’t get frustrated looking for things; you don’t avoid the workspace. Just don’t let shop-building deter you from building other things in your shop.

F. Accept that maintenance is necessary.

You will never de-clutter once and for all time. Because clutter is a product of our habits, and because we tend to slip back into our old habits, we will find the clutter coming back sometimes.

That doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Everyone makes mistakes. Establishing new habits and routines takes time, and you will have periods of regression. Just don’t give up. Pick your stuff up and try again.

It helps me to schedule annual shop-cleaning days. Mine is over the New Year holiday. Yours might be over Labor Day or 4th of July or even your birthday.

How to Do It: Four Piles

Let’s backtrack a second. I’ve talked about keeping your workspace clutter-free, but what about doing that big clutter-purge for the first time? You may be staring at your cluttered workspace wondering where to start.

You start by picking up one item. Deal with one thing at a time.

I find it helpful to sort things into four categories, or piles. There’s the “keep” pile, the “sell” pile (which means you will keep it temporarily while it’s being posted for sale), the “give” pile, and the “discard” pile.

Here’s what goes in each:

Keep Pile: Things I actually use. Often these are things that I have merely neglected to put away. These are things I have used in the past year, or things that I will realistically use in the coming year. (Hardwood gets a pass here, especially if it’s still drying out.) If I’m going to keep it, where will it live? If it doesn’t have a place to stay when not in use, then either I have to make space or pass it on.

Sell Pile: Things that have demonstrable monetary value. This is NOT the “I’ll eventually sell this” pile, but the “I am taking photos now, writing down specs, and posting it for sale tonight” pile. I seldom do this myself, as I’d rather just give stuff away. Just remember that your goal here is not to maximize profits. You’re trying to move the merchandise, so price it to sell. Give somebody else a great deal on it. Also make sure you have boxes and packing materials if you’re selling online, and that you’re available at reasonable times for meet-ups and pick-ups if you’re selling locally.  

Give Pile: Things that I can’t keep but will be valuable to someone else. This is NOT the “I’m going to give this to somebody someday” pile, or the “I’m dumping my junk on somebody else because I can’t deal with the thought of my stuff being garbage” pile, but the “Tomorrow I’m trucking this over to the Habitat Restore” or “Next weekend I’m hosting the local woodworking club and letting them take whatever they want from the box” pile. These may be common items that are fully functional but don’t have a lot of resale value. Or they may be larger items that would be difficult to ship, or that you just don’t want to go to the trouble of selling.

A lot of people want to give away stuff but don’t know where to send it. We woodworkers are an introverted lot, and while we have a sense that there are a lot of other people out there doing stuff like this, we don’t actually know many of them personally. So here are a few suggestions of places to check with.

  • Local Woodworkers: There’s probably a local association, club, or guild of woodworkers in your area. Search online until you find the closest one.
  • Habitat for Humanity Restore: They generally take both sound lumber (in reasonable lengths) and tools in working condition.
  • Thrift Stores: Many will accept donations of handheld tools, especially small power tools.
  • Local History Museums: This is a long shot, but if you have antique tools in especially good condition, and if the tools have a documentable connection to the locale (i.e. you can prove they were owned/used by a local historic personage), then a museum might be interested in a few of them.
  • Schools: A few years ago, woodshop programs had almost died out in high schools, but they are starting to see a comeback as demand for skilled tradespeople rises. A lot of community colleges and even larger universities have a woodshop, either in the industrial arts program or the fine arts program. (The set builders in the theater department may also need basic power tools, construction-grade lumber, and fasteners–see below.) If the shop program itself doesn’t need the tools, the instructors might know of promising students who could use them.
  • Community Theaters: Every community theater needs to build sets for shows, and nearly all of them have small woodshops attached. Many would be happy to have your spare hardware, fasteners, tools, sheet goods, and construction-grade lumber in good condition–even if it has paint on it. (They are constantly painting and repainting stuff for each new show.) Getting in touch with a community theater can also be a great way to discover other local woodworkers.

But, I repeat, do NOT use the giveaway pile as a way to prevent broken, worn-out, or otherwise non-functioning items from being discarded. In any case, call the organization first to find out what donations they take, and be willing to take “no thanks” for an answer.

Discard Pile: Get yourself some trash cans with bags. (Some people might even need to rent a small dumpster if the clutter has been severe enough.) I find that throwing away the first few things is the hardest, but after a few items it gets easier. Begin with actual garbage, like cardboard boxes, scraps, broken things. That helps you build up momentum. Remind yourself that you are making space for the work you want to do now. It is okay to throw away things you’ve kept for a long time. It is okay to throw away things you were given. It is okay to throw away hardwood off-cuts. It is okay to throw away rusty metal, such as old fasteners, drill bits, and files. It is even okay to throw away things that technically work but don’t work very well. And it is definitely okay to throw away parts for things you don’t even have anymore.

As you discard things, it can be easiest to put everything into one trash bin. But since you’re dealing with a shop, you might want to sub-sort the trash:

  • Recycle Bin: If you only have a little metal, or if it’s impractical to sort it by metal type, then it’s probably not worth the extra time and effort to recycle it. But if you have a lot, or the recycling center is convenient, go right ahead. Just don’t expect to get much money for scrap metal, unless the market is especially hot at the moment. In my area, there are a few guys who regularly collect scrap metal from the curb for extra cash. I just put out my scrap metal at the curb for them to find. Taking it down to the recycling center is more trouble than it’s worth for me, and I can do them a good turn by leaving the metal for them to haul away.
  • Burn Pile: It can also be fun to celebrate your clean shop by roasting some weenies over a bonfire of scrap wood. If you have a safe place to burn, or if there’s a demand for firewood in your area, go ahead and set aside your wood scraps to burn.
  • Trash Can: Most trash is easy to discard; just toss it in the can. There is nothing wrong with putting small pieces of wood right in the trash and sending them to the landfill. Unlike most of the stuff that ends up there there, wood is actually biodegradable. But discarding other kinds of things can be tricky. For old paints and wood finishes, put the cans outside with the lids off until they solidify, and then discard them as solid waste.

As you proceed, the trash pile may become shockingly large, especially after a big purge. That’s okay. Tie up those trash bags and put the lids on the trash cans so you can’t see it anymore. If your local trash pickup can’t take it all, or can’t take it all at once, you might know somebody who has access to a dumpster and wouldn’t mind you depositing a couple bags of trash in it (legally!).

Finally, you have to be willing to move items down the scale. Everything in your Keep Pile might not fit into your shop. Go through it again and see what you might be able to sell. Stuff you post for sale might not get any offers; be willing to give it away instead. Some of your giveaways items might not be wanted; be willing to send them to the recycling center instead.

Remember This Feeling

Once you have purged your clutter by working through your mental clutter-creators, remember how it feels to work in an uncluttered workspace. Remember how it feels to be able to walk right over to the tool you need, take it out, use it, and put it back again—without having to move piles of junk out of the way.

That is how this hobby is supposed to feel. You are supposed to experience feelings of confidence, competence, accomplishment, and maybe even peacefulness and security in your workspace—at least some of the time.

When you start to see the clutter coming back—and you probably will—remember how it feels to have an uncluttered shop. Remember that an uncluttered workspace always feels better than giving in to lines like “I might use it someday” or “I don’t want to deal with this right now.”

So remember, put your things away, let go of things you don’t need, and enjoy working in a clutter-free workspace.

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Clutter-Creator #4: Stuff of the Past

We woodworkers are a nostalgic lot. Even those who work mainly with modern power tools can ooh and ah over an 18th-century highboy made by hand. Reverence for history is one thing that has kept me working wood primarily by hand. People who know little or nothing of the past are usually lost in the present—whether they know it or not.

But there are unhealthy attitudes about the past, which can lead to clutter building up in your workspace to the point where it’s not really usable anymore. According to Tracy McCubbin, whose book Making Space, Clutter Free inspired this series of blog posts, this is one of the biggest generators of clutter.

A Sense of Obligation

One way that I’ve succumbed to this clutter-creator is allowing myself to be trapped with stuff I’ve been given in the past. I should state at the outset that I am VERY grateful to all the generous people who have given me valuable tools and wood over the years. I bought none of my stationary power tools—they were all given to me over the years. Most of my handsaws were given to me by various people. Quite a lot of wood has been given to me in the form of logs or off-cuts. And that’s not even going into the tools that older woodworkers have given to my children. I am astounded over and over by the generosity of woodworkers.

However, sometimes well-meaning generosity can create unhealthy feelings of obligation on the part of the recipient. And those feelings of obligation can make us hang on to things that are really nothing but clutter.

A case in point was a mortising attachment for my drill press. I was gifted the drill press some years ago by the widow of a local woodworker. The tool itself is a mid-century Craftsman, solid as a rock and endlessly useful. I could not make pipes without it. But it also came with a complicated attachment that turned it into a makeshift mortising machine. Useful in theory—and I’m sure the original owner did use it—but not useful to me. I have other ways of cutting a mortise, and I found myself moving this mortising attachment out of my way every few months.

Finally, I got sick of moving it from place to place and tossed it in the recycling pile. It was a relief. Why hadn’t I done that earlier? I knew from the start I was never going to use it. I knew nobody else who wanted it, and it didn’t have enough resale value to be worth offering for sale.

A lot of people succumb to unmanageable clutter because they are trapped with other people’s stuff. Often those people are long gone. In my case, I saw that I was only keeping this mortising attachment because, at some level, I felt obliged to. In reality, I had no obligation to keep it, and I let it go.

Because It’s Old

My reverence for the past makes it incredibly difficult for me to admit that a lot of old things are not actually valuable just because they are old. This especially goes for things that were made before my parents were born. I don’t even know why, but that’s my emotionally arbitrary standard for hating to throw a thing out. If it’s older than my parents, then I have an irrational need to hang onto it.

For example, I have an old wooden jointer plane sitting up in my attic. I bought it some years ago, and even made a new wedge for it. (So I’m invested—see Clutter-Creator #1.) The body is somewhat cracked, but it’s still usable, I guess. I don’t really know how old it is, but I do know there are hundreds like it in antique shops all over the country. There ones in museums with all-original parts. (There are ones dangling from the ceilings of Cracker Barrel restaurants that are in better shape!) Yet I haven’t parted with it. Why?

Because it’s old, that’s why. And it’s not in the way.

I will hasten to say that there is nothing wrong with keeping a personal collection of well-curated items—whether antiques or collectables or anything else that strikes your fancy—as long as it doesn’t get in the way of your normal functioning. A display wall of vintage braces, all shined up and labeled, can be a thing of beauty. A pile of rusty braces on your workbench is not.

The Antiques Roadshow Problem

A few old things do have historical value, but most don’t. When it comes to vintage hand tools, a whole lot of that history has already been documented and commemorated with examples that are in better condition than yours. There’s nothing wrong with making inquiries into the actual value (historic or otherwise) of the things you have, as long as you are prepared for the inevitable news that these tools are neither as rare nor as valuable as you had hoped.

At this point in my life, I have probably seen hundreds of social-media posts from people showing a bunch of rusty tools and asking “what have I got?” In the best cases, the answer is “a few usable tools, as well as some junk.” Once in a while, there’s one tool that could fetch $50 or $75 on the open market, but most of the time it’s $5-$10 per tool.

Not once—not ONCE!—have I seen a post in which the consensus response was “Holy Cow! Call the Smithsonian! Call Christie’s Auction House! These tools are worth a FORTUNE!”

Doesn’t happen. Even though Antiques Roadshow has convinced us all that it happens all the time. It doesn’t.

In reality, there were a whole lot of cheap, low-quality tools manufactured in this country over the last century and a half. Even the desirable tools were mass-produced by the thousands, often by the hundreds-of-thousands. And like all antiques, their value goes up and down according to market demand. One day, you can’t hardly give away a vintage gizmo in good condition. The next day some hand-tool celebrity (C.S., I’m looking at you.) says it’s a great thing to have and the price goes through the roof. A couple years later, everybody has forgotten about it (except for the die-hard C.S. fans), and they’re selling for pennies once again. That’s economics for you.

My Past Self

One final way that the past can clutter our workspaces is through unhealthy nostalgia for a past life. Maybe you used to be really into a certain aspect of woodworking, but for some reason you can’t do it anymore. The most common reason is a tragic injury or declining health that makes it difficult if not impossible to do that kind of work. But there are other reasons, too. Any major loss (a divorce, a job-loss, a death in the family) that you associate with your workspace can make it just too painful to go out there again. So it becomes a catch-all space for storing junk that has nowhere else to go, and eventually your past self gets buried under the clutter.

De-cluttering the space means going back and confronting your loss, which can be really painful. But it can also be liberating to acknowledge that things have changed, and while you are not who you used to be, that doesn’t mean that who you are now is worthless. It can be therapeutic to let go of the stuff you associate with your past life in order to make room for who you are now—or who you want to grow into in the future.

All this may sound vague, even sentimental, but it’s not. I think it happens to most people at some point in their lives. You take a look around at some of the stuff surrounding you and realize, “This isn’t me anymore.” When that happens, you have a choice. You can cling to your past self, hopelessly wishing that you could somehow recapture that past. Or you can be thankful for the good that was, and accept who and what you are now as a gift, different from what you had before, but a gift nonetheless.

As you clear away the clutter that was (or that has buried) your past self, it’s good to keep some little mementos that are genuinely meaningful to you. Mount them on the wall, or put them where they are visible but not in the way. They will mean all the more if there are only a few, because when you look at them, you will not see a confused mass of clutter but individual reminders of what you have to be grateful for.

In my final post in this series, I’ll offer some practical strategies for de-cluttering a workspace, all while continuing to deal with those pesky, mental clutter-creators.

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Clutter-Creator #3: Stuff I’m Avoiding

If you find your workspace overwhelmed with clutter to the point where you really can’t work in it, then you don’t just have a storage-space problem. The clutter is telling you something about yourself, and it’s probably something you don’t really want to hear. But hearing it out is the first step to reclaiming your space from the clutter. So I’ve learned from Tracy McCubbin’s book Making Space, Clutter Free, which has inspired this series of blog posts.

According to McCubbin, one big reason people allow clutter to invade their space is that it is covering up things they are avoiding. Whether it’s a stack of notices from the IRS or an e-mail that demands an answer, it’s all too easy let things just pile up on top of them until you can’t see them anymore. We know that ignoring problems doesn’t actually solve them, but we convince ourselves that if we ignore them long enough, they will just go away.

The Problem I Don’t Want to Face

I’m going to open with a personal example that sent me into a near-panic just last week. I had piled up a bunch of rough-sawn wood for spoons on top of some logs I had intended to saw up, which were in front of still more boards and other scraps I had set aside. As I began sorting and rearranging this lumber hoard, I uncovered a problem that (to be totally honest) I had suspected but ignored.

Termites. The woodworker’s worst enemy (besides himself). I thought I had taken enough precautions by storing everything up on concrete blocks, but a few weeks ago I had noticed insect trails near this pile of rough-sawn wood. But I did nothing. I didn’t want to take the time to deal with it. I piled more wood on top of it instead.

Finally I disassembled the stack. I pulled out several boards that had been stacked closely together, and there were hundreds of termites swarming between them. The insects had come through the damp floor and up into a bunch of scraps I had saved. By the end of a long day taking apart a large pile of wood, I had a bunch of heavily damaged pieces of wood laying out in the lawn.

Now, before anybody freaks out about termites on my behalf, just know that termite damage is universal where I live. Every house has some termite damage–the only issue is how much, and whether it’s ongoing. (Local realtors and insurance agents alike know this.) My house is fine. And after I got everything sorted out, I found that I had been spared the worst. I lost a few pieces of plywood, as well as a some good pine boards, but almost none of my hardwood damaged. I was able to breathe a sigh of relief at that–after I treated the whole area heavily for insects.

It could have been far worse. And I’m learning a valuable lesson. I need to be much more selective in the wood that I try to salvage. Better to let it go into the dumpster immediately than to pile it up to attract rot and insect damage to my storage space–and then let it go into the dumpster along with a bunch of other material that has gotten ruined along with it.

The Project I Can’t Finish

Another version of Clutter Creator #3 is the Project I Started but Can’t Finish. Perhaps we started on a really ambitious project, but at some point we got stuck or overwhelmed, or we screwed something up, and we walked away and never came back to it. Every time we come back into our workspace, there it is—reminding us of our inadequacy. So instead of dealing with it, we allow other things to cover it until we can’t see it anymore. At some level we still know it’s there, but we can become terrified of uncovering it again.

I’ve read enough forums and social media threads to know that this is a pretty common experience. If there’s an unfinished project that you’re avoiding, the good news is that it’s probably not as bad as you think. Problems tend to grow in our minds whenever we are avoiding them, so forcing yourself (maybe with somebody else there with you) to uncover the unfinished project can be liberating.

You might find that the part you got stuck on wasn’t really so difficult after all, or that it’s possible to finish the project if you just simplify the design somewhat. Maybe those ball-and-claw feet can just be cabriole legs instead. Maybe the top doesn’t have to be bookmatched crotch figure, and you can settle for more workable quarter-sawn stock instead. Or maybe you will just have to accept that the finished product will have a visible patch somewhere, that it won’t be as perfect as it looked in your head when you started. And that’s okay.

As McCubbin reminds her own clients, “Done is better than perfect.” Or, as I might say in the workshop, “Actually done is better than potentially perfect.”

I Don’t Have Time

As I admitted above, I tend to avoid things by saying “I don’t have time right now.” And that is often at least partially true. Although I am blessed to have more free time than the average person employed full-time (my teaching schedule leaves my summers fairly free), my woodworking time is still limited.

Fortunately, most woodworking is not time-sensitive, but there are some tasks that really are urgent. The longer I wait to do them, the more I create problems for myself–even if termites aren’t an immediate threat.

If you’re into green woodworking, you know that you’re always fighting the clock. Wood harvested green will soon dry out, becoming less workable—even cracking and becoming useless. Since I do cut up sections of logs into boards and billets for making wooden spoons, I am often working under a time-crunch.

That means I find it all too easy to avoid unpleasant tasks under the guise of taking care of something urgent. So if I’m faced with a project that needs to be done, but that I know I have the tendency to avoid, I will schedule it in. I put it on the calendar. On this date, starting at 9 a.m., I do this thing—no more avoiding.

Turning this pile of cherry logs into usable boards took a lot of work. Because the wood was wet, and the weather was rapidly warming up, it was a race against mold, fungus, and insects to get these processed and under cover.

My habit of salvaging logs sometimes gets me into other kinds of trouble, however. It’s all too easy to bring home more wood than I can process and store in a timely manner. I have let logs sit until they are punky and bug-eaten and growing fungus. Sometimes that can’t be avoided, but I have realized that I often go through a process of avoidance that feeds itself.

Busting logs apart with a sledge and wedges is hard work, especially in the summer heat. So I avoid it, hoping for a cooler day. (“Not going to happen in late July, pal,” I have to remind myself.) Then school is starting back, and I’m super-busy, so maybe I’ll get to it on a weekend. By this time, I’m not only avoiding the work because it’s tiring; I’m also avoiding it because I’m afraid the wood might be too far gone, and I’ll have to drag it over to the trash pile to be hauled away.

Inevitably, avoidance fed by fear of what might happen turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The wood deteriorates, and I’m beating myself up over letting it go to waste.

Looking back, I could have halted this downward spiral at several points:

1. I could have been more selective in what I brought home. I’ve gotten better about this lately. Just because it’s available doesn’t mean I have to bring home everything I can fit in the back of my van. And it is okay not to bring home anything at all.

2. I could have set aside time to process the logs when fresh. That would have meant pushing back other tasks, or letting other things go. But I’ve noticed that I usually have time for things that are actually important to me.

3. I could have discarded them when I realized I would not take the time to process them. Wood does grow on trees, after all. And my workspace cannot accommodate every log that comes down in the neighborhood. I don’t have to let things sit there until they have rotted away; I can get rid of them before they become clutter.  

As I have been reflecting on my own habits of thinking that lead to clutter, I have been able to talk myself into doing more preventive maintenance. I know I have a tendency to let bits and scraps of things take over my workspace, so when I see it begin to happen, I can head it off instead of letting it all pile up again.

When I’m digging through my storage space, I sometimes come upon some item that I now recognize as clutter—it’s Stuff for Someday, or Stuff I Convinced Myself Was Valuable. And when I hear what it’s telling me, I can let it go—give it away, recycle it, or just toss it in the trash.

In my next post, I will deal with clutter-creator #4: Stuff of the Past.

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Clutter-Creator #2: Stuff I’m Convinced Has Value

In my last two posts, I said that dealing effectively with a cluttered workspace is all about changing the way you think about your stuff, and I dealt with Clutter-Creator #1: “Stuff for Someday.” For me, the #1 reason I hang on to junk is that “I might need it someday.”

But a close second is “I’m Convinced This Is Valuable.” It’s all too easy for me to let stuff clutter up my workspace because I feel like it’s too good to let go of. That value can be in money, but it can also be a less tangible kind of value, such as time.

I Paid a Lot for That!

It can be hard to let go of something we paid a lot for, even if it turns out to be completely useless.

Earlier this summer I helped some folks remove a fallen tree from their yard, and I brought home a couple red oak logs that I hoped to split up into legs for some stools I’m planning on building. They sat in my yard for a week or two, and then one hot weekend, I worked up quite a sweat splitting them into quarters with a sledge and wedges.

Much to my dismay, the wood was already riddled with bug holes. The tree had been down for too long, and the bugs had gotten to it first.

I considered keeping it anyway, but in my better judgment, I knew the strength of the wood was already compromised. I was also not confident in my ability to completely eradicate the bugs. But I had spent all that time bringing the wood home and splitting it up! I hated to drag it over to the trash pile. In the end, though, that’s what I did.

I don’t regret it. There is no use, they say, in throwing good money after bad. And there is no use in hanging on to useless things just because I have already spent a lot of time and effort on them.

While I’m tempted to keep things just because I spent time on them, there are other things I keep because I spent good money on them. This is can be one of the hardest mental blocks for people like me to get over.

But just because I once paid good money (or time) for it does not mean that I should continue to pay for the item’s existence. The book that inspired this blog series, Making Space, Clutter Free by Tracy McCubbin, points out that an item’s true cost is often much more than its original sticker price.

Keeping something always costs me space. If an object is occupying space that it should not be, then that’s a real cost that I should not continue to pay.

Keeping something often costs me time. Every time I have to move it out of the way (if it’s sitting on my benchtop or in the walkway) or dig around to find it (if it’s under/behind other things), then I am paying with my time to keep it—probably more than it’s worth.

It Was a Really Good Deal!

I am not nearly as much of a bargain hunter as some other guys I know (J.D.E., you know who you are!), but I am still prone to bringing home stuff I don’t really need just because it was a bargain price—or free!

For me, dealing with the “It was a good deal” clutter-creator has to happen before I make the purchase. It was a genuinely liberating day when I realized that, just because something is a great deal, that doesn’t mean it has to be a great deal for me. I can walk away and let it be a great deal for someone else!

There is absolutely nothing wrong with passing up an awesome tool at a bargain price thinking, “Some guy is going to be thrilled to find that—and that guy doesn’t have to be ME.”

You are not the only bargain-hunter in town. Teach yourself to feel great that, because you walked away, you helped somebody else get that great deal.

I Don’t Want It to Go to Waste

Part of growing up in the rural Midwest is learning not to waste things. Don’t let the water run if you’re not using it. Cut up old clothes for rags. Eat the leftovers in the fridge. It’s a good habit, I think. But it can also get out of hand, and if not counter-balanced by other good habits, it can lead to an enormous amount of clutter.

We all probably know “hoarders” who save absolutely everything–ketchup packets, plastic flatware, yogurt cups, scrap paper. The root of the problem is usually fear of scarcity. We hoard stuff because, at some point in our lives, we experienced extreme scarcity (or the threat of it), and we quickly developed the habit of hoarding in response.

That’s me, too. When I first started working wood, I was a graduate student making a solid four-figure salary, so I economized in every way possible. Back then, I remember reading a magazine article that included the phrase, “Use a piece of scrap to….” My heart sank. I had NO scraps–I had planned my initial projects so carefully that every single bit of wood had been used. I began to salvage whatever wood scraps I could find.

But now that habit has caught up with me. I still save wood scraps, old hardware, and worn-out tools as a matter of habit. I am trying to consciously let much of this stuff go by reminding myself that scrap is no longer scarce. Every project generates more. I can now afford to buy a little extra wood here and there. Being able to work in an uncluttered shop feels better than compulsively piling up scraps.

I started this process of re-thinking my approach to scraps before I read McCubbin’s book, but the book helped me see my compulsive scrap-saving in a whole new light. I do not want things to go to waste, but when I hoard things instead of putting them to use, I am wasting them. Stuff sitting on the bottom of a pile of clutter is already being wasted!

I can’t tell you how many times I have de-cluttered a damp corner of my workspace, only to find a few old wood scraps covered in fungus or rotted right through. Why didn’t I just discard them to begin with? Because I didn’t want to waste them. As it turned out, the day I left them there they had already gone to waste–but I didn’t know it.

I have realized that clutter is already a waste. That frees me from bringing the clutter back in. Piling scraps in my workspace is even more wasteful than tossing them in the burn pile, because I am wasting both them and my available space.

That’s Really Valuable!

I used to want to hold on to things, especially antiques, that I thought might be valuable. But helping an elderly neighbor, Mrs. W., move furniture out of her old house helped cure me of that. Before we went over to the house, she showed me an upscale furniture catalog, and pointed to a nice, fashionable settee on one of the pages.

“Look at that,” she said to me, pointing a gnarled finger at the page. “How much does that cost?” (She was fond of asking rhetorical questions.)

It was about a thousand dollars, as I recall. I read the price out loud.

“I have one just like it in my old house, made from solid maple” she informed me, “and my daughter just wants to get rid of it! People don’t know what things are worth.”

Mrs. W. wasn’t there when we found the old settee she had told me about. There it was in a corner, the cushions stained and torn, and the whole thing covered in dust. It was, as she had told me, built from maple, but one leg was damaged. It was not the valuable antique Mrs. W. imagined that she remembered. Even if repaired, it would not be worth a quarter of the price of that new settee she had seen in the furniture catalog.

My experience helped me see that, when we are convinced that an object has monetary value, we often stop seeing the object as it is. In our minds, we cast over it an artificial veneer of memory modified by imagination and wishful thinking, all sprinkled with dollar signs. (Mrs. W. had the added disadvantage of being nearly blind, so she could not see that settee as it was at all.) If we were to bring it out in the light, and snap some pictures of the object, we might be surprised that it doesn’t look at all like we had imagined it did.

If I think that an object does have monetary value, it’s easy to check. I look up similar objects on eBay. But—and this is really important—I don’t look at list prices! I look at “sold” prices. Because an object is not necessarily worth its asking price; it’s only worth what someone actually pays for it. If an object is large and difficult to ship, then I can always look at local listings like Craig’s List and Facebook Marketplace, which don’t give you “sold” prices. But you can see which listings disappear quickly (because the items sell) and which ones just sit there. Look up your item there once, and take note of asking prices. Then wait two weeks, and look again. The listings that are gone will tell you what an item like that is actually worth. The listings that are still there are being offered by people afflicted with wishful-thinking syndrome.

It’s Not as Valuable as You Think

If I suspect I’m hanging on to clutter just because I have convinced myself that it’s valuable, I need to ask myself two important questions:

1. How often do I really need this kind of thing? NOT “Do I think I might need it ‘someday’?” (which I covered in my last post), but how often in the past year have I reached for something like this? Once? Twice? Or can’t I remember the last time I used this?

If I have not used it in the past, that’s a pretty good indication that I’m not likely to use it in the future. So maybe those narrow offcuts of OSB don’t need to be taking up space in my lumber rack after all. I do remember the last time I used OSB, and it wasn’t recently. I don’t use the stuff regularly, and I don’t need it just taking up valuable space.

2. If I didn’t have it, how hard would it be to acquire it again?

This one has really makes me pause. If I need hinges for a box I’m making, I go down to the hardware store and buy them. Or I order them online if I want extra-nice ones. If I need to do some rough construction, I will buy a box of framing nails when I buy my lumber. I don’t need to keep a half-dozen rusty framing nails in the bottom of a big box—or, if I do keep them, I can at least throw out the box!

On the other hand, I often find myself looking for a 2X4, whether for blocking or for screwing together some quick-and-dirty frame for some project. It’s a pain to have to run all the way down to the home center to buy one or two 2X4s, so I like to keep a few on hand at all times. I have never regretted that.

But I don’t need to keep a dozen short 2X4 offcuts, since I really never find myself thinking, “If only I had a twelve sections of 2X4 that were shorter than a foot!” If I need one or two, I can cut them off the end of a longer piece of scrap.

I have to keep reminding myself that the purchase price is not the total cost of an item. I need to assess whether keeping an item is also worth its cost in space and time. (And if you have stuff in a storage unit, you might want to calculate how much keeping all that stuff has been costing you in additional dollars.)

Next time I’ll talk about one of my most uncomfortable clutter-creators, the Stuff I’m Avoiding.

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