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.

Posted in books, Reviews, Wood and Woodwork, Woodworking Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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 | 21 Comments

Crafting (in) the Home: Passing on Your Skills to your Children

I just returned from a conference on community building called The Urban Village: From Cloud-Castles to Blueprints, sponsored by The Servi Institute in Oklahoma City, OK, where I gave a presentation on passing on manual skills to children by letting them work alongside you.  (The conference itself was about so much more than this, and I plan to write at least one more post with additional reflections from the conference.) What follows is an outline of the presentation I gave there.

As an avid woodworker and a father of several children, I want to pass on my skills to my children as much as I can.  And in doing so, I hope to craft a home environment where skilled, meaningful work is a normal part of everyday life.

Perhaps I’m more naively optimistic about this than I should be.  After all, each child is his or her own person, and as the children grow and mature, each one gravitates toward very different things.  Some kids really love working outdoors and getting their hands dirty.  Others prefer to explore the great indoors, especially when there are toys and books to be had.  But everybody is capable of doing meaningful work, and working skillfully builds prudence, patience, and courage, no matter what kind of work is being done.

If you want to help your children learn to work with you—especially as you work with your hands—there are some principles and guidelines to keep in mind.  I’m using my own craft–woodworking–as an example, but these principles apply whether you are teaching kids to cook meals, clean a house, repair a car, write poetry, or play music together.

1. Learning starts with observation and imitation. If you want children to learn about your craft, you have to begin by letting them into your workspace while you yourself are at work. Once children see you work, they will begin to imitate you.

A few years back, I walked into the dining room to find two of my little daughters doing this:

Kid Rocking Chair Repair 11-2013 - - 5

They had a chair turned over on the floor.  One of the girls was “fixing” and “cleaning” it.  The other one had stopped to “take a picture.”  They had clearly been watching my work habits closely–including my habit of stopping to take pictures of my work to post on the internet!

Just make sure that your work–and your work habits–are actually worth imitating.

2. Let them play at your work.  Mr. Rodgers was fond of reminding adults that, for children, play is serious work, and that children learn to work by playing–an idea he got from educational psychologist Jean Piaget. Let children try out different tools on ordinary materials and see what happens.

A Carving 11-2013 - 08

Above, two of my daughters practice carving with a carving gouge on a scrap board.  The gouge in use is razor sharp–a real tool–and it works very well when handled properly.   (This is an excellent opportunity to train children in taking the right safety precautions.)

Don’t bother about getting “kids’ tools.”  I find that a child who can write his or her own name usually has the dexterity to handle the smallest of regular, “adult-sized” tools, whether it’s scissors, a spatula, or a power drill.  I keep a few well-maintained tools in smaller sizes around for the kids to handle–small eggbeater drills, 12 oz. hammers, and short handsaws–but these are all real tools, not imitations.

Don’t give kids dull, shoddily-made tools to work with, either.  They will frustrate the kids just as much as they frustrate you.

3. When they are ready for simple projects, distribute the work between you and the child. That includes planning and designing the project. Don’t do anything that the child can do by him or herself.

R Makes Wooden Train Engine 9-2018

A couple months ago, my son brought me some scraps of wood he had been playing with.  He showed me how he wanted to make a little train engine out of them.  So we spent some time going back and forth about different design options, and we began shaping the pieces and putting them together.  I did most of the sawing. He helped drive in nails and spread glue.  At each stage, I told him what I was doing and why.  He stuck with me through the whole project and came away with something he and I can be proud of.

4. As the child becomes more capable, you step farther back into an advisory role.  This can be difficult, especially if you think the child has taken on a project that is a little beyond his or her actual capabilities.  That may be so, but that’s the only way we learn anything.  Set the child to work and walk away.

I mean it:  Walk.  Away.

Fairy Furniture for K 9-2018


Here my daughter is building some “fairy furniture” to set out in her little garden.  She came to me with the idea, I provided the materials, and she put everything together.

As they get older, they will become more ambitious.  Just go with it.

N Tool Chest 2016

Here my oldest daughter is laying out dovetails for her tool chest.  It was a challenging project for her, and she learned a lot along the way.

If you’ve spent the last several years closely supervising the child’s every move, it can be hard to walk away and let the child work unsupervised.  But you have to.  You don’t work well with somebody hovering over your shoulder, do you?  Nobody does.

Your child will eventually run into a problem, so let him or her come to you once the problem arises, even if you saw it coming all along.  Learning when to figure it out yourself and when to ask for help is an important step in the maturation process.

5. Remember that the ultimate goal is not necessarily a finished product.

It is good to make an object.


A M R Sand Spoons 2018

Following through and finishing a job not only brings satisfaction, but it also develops the habit of endurance.  Above, the children are helping me sand spoons to sell at a local market.  They know they have to do the job well and completely, otherwise we don’t get paid for it.

So making an object is good, but building skill is even better.

N Spoon Carving 2016

The more the child builds skill, the more capable he or she will be, and the more he or she can work independently.  Here, my daughter carves out a ladle–a custom request from an acquaintance.  She had never made a ladle before, but she had made many stirring spoons, so applied her skill and did something new.

As we build skill, we learn to shape our surrounding respectfully, to work within the natural limits imposed by our materials.  And skills build upon skills.  Learning to work effectively with one tool naturally leads to a second, and a third, if we are willing to follow our craft.

So building skill is better than building an object, but building a relationship is best of all.

Help with Sawing 1-2013

I don’t want to idealize the process of passing on your craft to children.  It’s slow going.  It requires a lot of patience.  There are setbacks and disappointments.  People make messes.  They lose interest.  They break things.

Teaching while working is massively inefficient.  At least in the short term.  If you just want to get something done, then having little apprentices around will definitely slow you down.  But if you care not only about the longevity of the craft itself, but about your own personal relationships, then you have to be willing to slow down and invite others into your work life.


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The Parable of the Homemade Wine

Once there was a man who had a garden and an orchard.  He grew many kinds of fruits–plums, figs, blueberries, strawberries, and grapes.  His fruits grew so well that he needed something to do with them, so he began to make wine out of them.  He collected many empty wine bottles of different sizes and shapes.  He collected other equipment and supplies.  And he set to making his wine.

After many years, he had made hundreds of bottles of wine, which he stored on shelves in his garage, each bottle carefully labeled with the main ingredients and the year.  There was grape wine, fig wine, plum wine, blueberry wine, and strawberry wine.  The man drank some of it, but he always made more bottles of wine than he would drink.  So he stored up more and more bottles of his homemade wine in his garage.

Homemade Wine 2018

One day the man died.  His family began to divide his possessions among themselves.  Some bottles they kept for themselves, and others they gave away to friends.   But everyone who tasted it found that the wine was not good.  Some bottles were too sour.  Others had not been filtered, and there were dregs floating in in the wine.  Nobody liked it.

So all the wine was poured down the drain–many, many bottles of it–and the man’s work came to nothing.

The Interpretation of the Parable

As you might have guessed, this story is true.  I didn’t know the man personally.  I entered this story when a friend of one of the man’s family members asked me if I would like a few bottles of wine for free.  I said “sure!”  Soon I was in possession of about a dozen bottles of homemade wine.  The first bottle I opened was just on the edge of drinkable, but I didn’t really like it.  A second bottle was entirely too sour.  Several of the other bottles, upon close inspection, had bits of the dregs floating around and were totally undrinkable.

Homemade Wine 2018

If you look closely at this bottle, for example, you can see where it was stored on its side and the dregs collected.  Now bits of the dregs have come loose from the bottle and are floating around in the liquid.

Now I am not a wine snob by any means.  I can enjoy a glass of $10-a-bottle wine as well as anybody, but I also know a good wine when I taste it.  Most of this homemade stuff was not even up to the low standard of the cheap wine sold at Walmart.

I still might keep one or two bottles to use in a chicken marinade, but I haven’t yet found a bottle in the batch that I would be willing to actually drink, much less serve to guests.  So I suppose nearly all of it is going to waste.  My friend told me that he, too, had discarded most of the wine he had been given.

I don’t know anything about wine making, so I have no idea why these wines were all bad.  But the experience got me thinking about the reasons that we sometimes settle for mediocrity in our craft work.  When I’m listening to creative types discussing matters of design, construction methods, and selection of materials, I often hear something like, “Do it whatever way makes you happy,” or “The only one you should worry about pleasing is yourself.”  The message is that, as long as you are satisfied with your work, then that’s all that matters.

Now, after my experience with the homemade wine, I think that’s very bad advice.  I don’t really know why this man couldn’t manage to make good wine.  It may be that he made his wine only to please himself.  I did find out after the fact that he had been skimping on materials and using poorly-conceived methods.  Did he know his work was low-quality?  If he did know, did he care?

Had this man learned more about his craft and really perfected his method, he might have left a stock of wine that would have done credit to his name for years to come.  But he didn’t.  And now his family is left with the unpleasant job of getting rid of the bad fruits of his ill-spent labor.  All that work is literally going down the drain.

When we are first learning a craft, many of us have a tendency to over-value our early attempts to make things.  We carve a spoon or throw a pot or forge a bottle opener, and while we readily admit that it’s not expert work, we are pleased with having made a serviceable object at all.  It’s not bad to be pleased with your work, but your being pleased does not make it good work.  All too often, we are not pleased because we have done good work; we are pleased only because it is our work.

Don’t make things just to please yourself.  Make them to please people who know a thing or two about your craft.  Make them to please the people who will own them after you are gone.  Make things so well that they will be valuable to other people, even if those people have no idea who you are.    Not everyone has the time or talent to become a master at a craft, but if you are going to take the time to learn a craft at all, you should learn it well–at least well enough to build to a reasonable standard of excellence.

But hey, if you are the kind of person who works only to please yourself… well… would you like a few bottles of homemade wine?

Posted in Musings, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Fairy Furniture You Can Make on Your Front Steps

After a big tropical storm made a mess of my daughter K’s fairy garden, she decided to do some remodeling. First on her list was new fairy furniture, so we thought up some simple designs for a table and chairs.  If you have a handsaw, a hammer, and some small nails, you can make these, too.

Fairy Furniture for K 9-2018

Fairy Chairs

The chairs are made from sections of a tree limb that was about 1 1/4″ in diameter.  Each chair is just under 2″ tall, so you need a limb that’s relatively straight for at least 8″.  But it helps to get a branch about twice that long so you have something to hold on to while you cut the chair pieces off.  If you want to leave the bark on, a tree with relatively smooth bark is best.  Or you can strip the bark with a pocketknife once you’ve cut the limb.

I have a workbench and a pretty good set of hand tools, so I prefer to do work like this at my workbench.  (Also, my workbench is indoors, where I have air conditioning.)  But you can make fairy furniture like this on your front steps.

Each chair requires only three saw cuts.  Put the branch on the steps and wedge it into a corner, holding it steady with your foot.

Fairy Furniture for K 9-2018

With your handsaw, make a 1″ deep cut with the grain.  This will be the “back” of the chair.  Don’t cut it right down the middle, though.  Instead, I find that cutting it about 1/3 of the way across the diameter makes for the best looking chair.

Next, saw across the grain until you meet your first cut.

Fairy Furniture for K 9-2018

Now you’ve made your seat.  Finally, cut the chair off the branch, and you’re ready to start another one.

Where should you make your final cut?  I don’t know, exactly.  I didn’t measure.  But I think the seat back should be about twice as tall as the bottom of the chair.  At least, that’s what looks right to my eye.  Measure it if you must.

Fairy Furniture for K 9-2018

At first, your chair will look a little ragged.

Fairy Furniture for K 9-2018

Use a pocketknife to trim any rough bits.  You can use the blade to scrape your saw cuts smooth if you like.

You should be able to make a nice little set of fairy chairs in ten minutes or so.

Fairy Furniture for K 9-2018

Here are a few others we made.  I sawed them out, and my daughter smoothed them here and there.  (The above pictures are pre-smoothing.)

Now that you have some chairs, it’s time to make a table or two!

Fairy Tables

A fairy table is very easy to make.  The most difficult part was cutting out the plywood.

We used a piece of 1/4″ thick plywood that I had salvaged from an old dresser drawer bottom.  The top of each table was about 1 1/2″ square.  You can cut that out of the corner of a piece of plywood with only two cuts.  Cutting plywood with a handsaw can be a challenge; I find it best to set it on a flat surface (benchtop, chair, table top, whatever) with the part you want to cut hanging off.  Hold it down with a knee or a foot as you saw.  It helps to have a second person hold the piece that’s hanging off.

Fairy Furniture for K 9-2018

Here’s where the kids can really get involved.  We made two different tables, both of them with a single, pedestal leg.  For the first one, we cut a short length of dowel (maybe 1″ long”).  We nailed through center of the table top and into the end of the dowel.

Fairy Furniture for K 9-2018

Then we cut a slightly smaller piece of plywood for the bottom of the pedestal and nailed that to the other end of the dowel.

Fairy Furniture for K 9-2018

The result is a cute little restaurant-style table.

Fairy Furniture for K 9-2018

Here it is in place.

But there’s an even easier way to make a fairy table.  For the pedestal, just use a section of a tree branch (you can use the same stock you got the chairs from).  Nail the top to the pedestal using two or three small nails.  That’s it.

Fairy Furniture for K 9-2018

And if you have the little scraps that you cut out of each chair, then you also have some handy fairy stools for the fairy patio.

Now to turn away and let the fairies have their tea party.

Posted in Build-Alongs, Kids, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

How to Install Hardwood Flooring without Power Tools

Can you really install hardwood flooring in your house without a special pneumatic nail gun and an air compressor?  Yes, you can.  We did it, and with a few tools and some skill, you can, too.

First, the back-story.  (If you’re just looking for a list of tools and tips, you can skip this part and scroll down to Step 3.)  The bedroom we are re-doing was built in the 1970s, and it looked like this when we started:

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

The dark paneling took on a depressing, gray shade in the evening light.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

The carpeting was extremely nasty.  That color had to look almost as ugly new as it does now.  So we’re going to not only replace the old carpet with hardwood flooring but also paint the paneling a lighter color.  (Our oldest daughter did most of the painting.)

So the first step in re-doing your floors is to take up the old flooring and strip everything down to the sub-floor.  (The sub-flooring is the stuff that sits on top of your floor-joists and supports the floor you actually walk on.  There may be one or more layers.  In old houses it’s usually solid-wood planking fitted together with tongue-and-groove.  In newer houses it’s probably some kind of plywood.)

Removing the old carpet (and the pad underneath) is easy.  We went at it with a sharp utility knife, cut it into big pieces, rolled them up, and carried them out.  But what was underneath the carpet and pad was a little unsettling.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

See the gray stuff?  That is fine dirt and dust that was sitting under the carpet.  We could have shaken a lot more out of the carpet as we carried it out, too.  That’s the downside of carpet: no matter how much you clean the top, dirt will eventually filter through to the bottom and just stay there, accumulating a little more every year.

Step 1: Prepare the Sub-Floor and Remove the Trim

You never really know what you’re going to find when you take up old flooring.  Your sub-floor may be in great shape, ready to receive your new flooring.  Or it may be in terrible shape and need repair or even replacement before the flooring goes in.  If you find soft spots in your sub-floor, or places that have deteriorated, take the time to correct the problems.

Do NOT install good flooring over a bad sub-floor.  It won’t hold up, and eventually the new flooring will give way and reveal your laziness.  Don’t be that person.

Do ensure there are no nail heads or staples sticking up out of the sub-floor.  You can pull them up or just pound them down with a hammer.  I prefer to pull staples up with needle-nose pliers if possible and hammer them down only as a last resort.  Nails get pounded down.  Then be sure you clean the sub-floor well, ideally with a shop-vac or something similar.  Get as much dust and debris up as you can, because whatever you leave there will stay there for the next few decades!

Use a pry-bar (the kind called a “cat’s paw” is best) to carefully remove any quarter-round molding as well as the baseboards.  You can leave the baseboards in place and cover any gaps with quarter-round molding at the end, but I prefer to use the baseboards to cover any gaps and skip the quarter-round altogether.  It saves both money and space.

Step 2: Gather the Materials

A. The flooring itself.  There are many types of wood flooring out there.  The kind we used is essentially strips of pre-finished hardwood plywood.  It has a couple layers of soft wood underneath a top layer of hardwood (red oak in our case), and the pieces fit snugly together with tongue-and-groove.  You will need to carefully measure the space you are re-flooring and ensure you buy enough, generally 5-10% more square feet than you measured for.  (Be sure to figure in any closet spaces or doorways.)

B. The moisture barrier.  Don’t let this scare you: it’s the easiest (and cheapest) part of the whole process.  Go to your local home center and get a roll or two of roofing felt (or “tar paper”).  Not only will it serve as a moisture barrier, but it will also help prevent your new floor from squeaking.

C. Fasteners, including staples (for the moisture barrier) and plenty of nails.  Nails should be fine finish nails, either 1 1/2″ or 2″.  I prefer the 2″, as they seem to hold better.  We used 2 1/2 boxes to lay down about 200 square feet of flooring.

Pro-tip: Skip the typical hardware store brands and buy Maze Nails, available at Lowe’s and other suppliers.  These nails are made in the USA from steel that is demonstrably superior to the steel in other nails.  They are well-formed and don’t bend easily.

Step 3: Gather the Right Tools

Professional flooring installers have a special pneumatic nail gun driven by an air compressor and designed for nailing down flooring.  You can rent these tools from the local home center, but then you have to learn to use them, and that can take additional time.  I seriously thought about renting the equipment, but in the end, we decided against rental and opted to install our flooring by hand.  I’m glad we did.

At minimum, here’s what you will need (details on several tools discussed below):

  • Claw hammer (at least 16 or 20 oz.)
  • Nail set
  • Staple gun and staples (we have a Bostitch electric staple gun, and it works well)
  • Drill and small bit
  • Pull-bar and a couple wood scraps
  • Miter saw (to cut the flooring)
  • Handsaw (for trimming stuff that your miter saw can’t handle)
  • Knee pads

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

A few notes:

The drill is necessary for drilling a few pilot holes along the edges of the room.  You won’t be using it extensively, and you need only one small bit approximately the same size as your nails.

The pull-bar is one of those special tools that probably costs the manufacturer $1.50 to make but sells for $12.  Buy it anyway.  You need this tool for pulling pieces of flooring together tightly around the edges of the walls.  You can (and should) make a wooden variety for for use near but not at the wall.  A 12″ strip of hardwood with a chunk of wood screwed to each end (as seen above) will be useful until you get to the very edges, and then you will need the manufactured pull-bar.

Knee pads: you will be spending all day on your knees.  Even a cheap pair of knee pads will make this whole process a lot easier on your joints.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

You will be using your nail set a LOT.  Nail sets come in several sizes, to be used with different kinds of nails.  Some finish nails have dimples in the center of the head, and they can be set with a nail set with a fine point that fits into the dimple.  The Maze nails we bought do not have the dimples, so we used a larger nail set that fits over the head of the nail.  Be sure you have a nail set that fits your nails.

If you’re not comfortable or experienced in driving and setting nails, this may be the time to stop and ask yourself whether you really want to tackle this installation yourself.  A couple errant hammer blows can ruin the edges of your new flooring.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

You need a reliable saw to cut pieces to length.  It can be done freehand with a handsaw, or you can use an electric miter saw to cut your pieces of flooring to length.  I happen to have and old, hand-powered model, which I clamped to a sawbench.  It works pretty well.

No matter what kind of saw you have, be sure the blade is freshly sharp.

Step 4: Staple Down the Moisture Barrier

Roll out the roofing fabric, cut the pieces to length with a utility knife or heavy scissors, and staple it down.

See how easy that was?  Yeah, don’t get cocky just yet.  The hard work is just ahead.

Step 5: Open the Boxes of Flooring and Start Laying It Down

If you’re tackling this job yourself, a lot of what you have to do will be obvious as you go along.  Do open a couple packages at a time and select the floorboards you will want adjacent to each other.  Also watch out for damaged pieces (it happens), which you can often cut shorter for use at the ends of rows.

To begin, lay your first row of flooring up against one wall.  Put the groove side of the flooring up against the wall.  Leave a little space between the flooring and the wall to allow for seasonal expansion and contraction of the floor.  About 1/4″ will do.  If you’re not sure about the measurement, you can use a spacer (like a couple pieces of plywood) to ensure a consistent gap.  Drill pilot holes about a foot apart all along the edge of the flooring and nail the boards down.

As you add pieces of flooring, you will be nailing into the tongue side as you go. Here’s how:

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

Start the nail in the corner where the tongue starts.  (I have my home-made pull-bar in the shot only so you can see the nail.)  Drive it in at about a 45-degree angle as far as you can.  Then use the nail set to drive it in the rest of the way.  If you find the nails difficult to drive in, you may wish to use a drill to bore a shallow pilot hole for the nail , but it’s an extra step and will make the whole job take even longer.

How many nails should you put into each floorboard?  At least one every foot, and probably more.  We found that 5-7 nails per floorboard kept them in place quite well.  Keep in mind that we are laying down thin strips of flooring, so that’s a lot of nails per square foot.   If your floorboards are wider, consider using more nails.

One little issue we had with our flooring was that sometimes the tongue collapsed around the nail as we were setting it.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

Use the nail set or a flathead screwdriver to carefully clear the chip out from underneath the tongue, otherwise the chip will prevent the next piece from going in all the way.

When you come to the end of a row, you will have to cut the last floorboard to length.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018 (53).jpg

To measure how much to cut, simply flip the piece around, set it at the wall, and mark it with a pencil.  Then take it to your saw and cut it to length.  (This is where it really helps to be working with a partner.)

A note on the orientation of different lengths: When you start a new row, make sure that the individual pieces don’t end closer than 6″ to the end-joints in the previous row.  Also, lay out a whole row of floorboards at a time, not only to make sure you have a nice variety of coloring and figure, but also to make sure you don’t have to try to nail down a 1″ piece at the very end.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018


If you plan it out right, you should have a regular pattern of alternating floorboards.  We didn’t quite get it as regular as we could, but we got close.  I now wish we would have planned it out a little more carefully than we did.

As you lay down each floorboard, you will need to tap it in nice and tight.  This does not mean that you hit it hard, though!  Several light taps are better than one big wack.  Also, never hit the flooring with the hammer alone.  It may deform the tongue or otherwise mar the flooring.  Use a scrap of wood such as pine or plywood instead.  I found that a 2″X8″X1/4″ piece was about perfect.  Be sure to tap the end of each floorboard as well as the side.  The most difficult gaps to close are the ones at the ends.

When it comes to closing gaps between floorboards, do not settle for “almost.”

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

These boards are nearly together, but there is still a visible gap between them.  Dirt will eventually get into that gap, and the wood at the edges can chip and otherwise deteriorate.  One more sound tap and the gap will be closed.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

Now the boards are seated properly, with no gap whatsoever.  You may find that you need to get one end of a floorboard seated properly, put in a nail or two, and then proceed down the floorboard alternately tapping and nailing.  Use the pull-bar every time you come close to the edges of the room.

90% of your time will be spent tapping boards into place and nailing them down.  You’re going to get VERY good at this after a couple hours.

One of the challenges of putting in new flooring is working around existing moldings, especially at doorways.  (Yes, you will find that you spend approximately 50% of your time working on 10% of the room.)  Here’s how to get everything fitted well.

We need to make space underneath the door trim for the flooring to go, so we need to under-cut the trim with a handsaw.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

First, use a spacer such as a scrap of the flooring to establish your depth.  If you are extremely fastidious, use a spacer that is just a little thinner than your flooring, so that the spacer plus the thickness of the saw’s blade is equal to the thickness of the floorboards.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

Saw into the trim, making sure that the saw teeth do not touch the new flooring at all.  (Put masking tape over any nearby new flooring if you’re really worried about it.)

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

Mark your piece to fit underneath the trim.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

You will need to use a handsaw to cut this notch out, too.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

If all has gone well, the board should fit nicely into the gap.

Step 6: Enjoy Your Process

With your nose to the floor all day, it’s easy to get so focused on the details that you can’t see the whole thing.  Occasionally, you should stand up, step back, and look at the big picture.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

You should also regularly clean up any scraps, dust, chips, and debris.

Step 7: Coming to the Other Side

One of the most difficult parts of laying the flooring is approaching the far side of the room, where you will almost certainly need to cut the last pieces long-ways to fit.  In our case, the last pieces needed to be only a fraction of an inch wide.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

Our solution was to glue two pieces of flooring together with wood glue and let them sit for about an hour to let the glue dry.  (It was lunchtime anyway.)  Then we ripped them down to the necessary width on a bandsaw.  You can use a table saw, track saw, or even a circular saw if you’re careful.  It was much easier than trying to tap an extra-thin strip of a floorboard into place.

Do ensure you leave the same gap between the last floorboard and the wall on this side that you left on the opposite side.  And just as you drilled pilot holes and nailed down one side directly through the floorboards, do the same on this side.  If you’re careful, the baseboard will eventually cover the nail heads.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

Step 8: Put Everything Back into Place

Once all the flooring has been nailed down, you can reinstall the base boards and any other trim pieces you removed.  Be sure to nail the trim back into the wall studs.

Now let’s see some before-and-after pictures:


Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

…and After!

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

It looks like a whole new room.

Wood Flooring Installation Master Bedroom 6-2018

The results look great.

Yes, it was a lot of work.  We put in about 2 1/2 days on the flooring, though we could have done it faster had we not made extra trips back to the home center for tools and supplies that we should have had in the first place.  By the end of it, my knees and back were aching, my hands were seizing up, and every time I closed my eyes I could still see floorboards and nails.

But we proved to ourselves that, with a few simple tools and a lot of perseverance, we could install hardwood flooring ourselves without having to rent specialized power tools.  And our new bedroom is cheerful and comfortable–at last!



Posted in Build-Alongs, Home Improvement, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Working Wood with My Children (Mostly Pictures)

Ever since my children were old enough to hold tools, I have included them in my woodworking.  My workbench is right in our main living space–on one end of the dining room–so the kids can all see me every time I work wood.  They have all dabbled in woodworking here and there, though their interest waxes and wanes over time.

Here are a few pictures of what the kids have been up to over the past six months.

My oldest, N., is my most active woodworker.  She’s also old enough to be able to design her own projects and use all the tools effectively and safely.

She has tried her hand at many kinds of woodworking over the last few years.

N Woodburning Ornaments 2017

Last Christmas, she experimented with wood burning, and she made a number of lovely ornaments from sections of limbs that I had cut and smoothed down.  She sold some at a local craft market, and others went to various family and friends.

N Makes a Pipe 1-2018

This year, she made her first pipe.  Then she made a second pipe, which she sold to a friend.

N at the Craft Table 5 Rivers 2018

N. is quite the entrepreneur.  She makes wooden spoons and spatulas, as well as other little items, as time allows.  Every time I sell my wares at a craft fair, she is my able assistant.

N and K Make Spoon Butter

A few months ago, N. suggested that we make some woodenware conditioner to sell alongside our woodenware.  She researched different recipes and eventually settled on an oil/wax mix that could be sold in small tins.  She and my next-oldest daughter, K., mixed up a batch and got it ready for market.

K. has worked wood in the past, but at the moment she is more interested in tending the garden.

But, when the need arises, she still likes to make simple things out of wood–like her little berry patch sign.  She is very fond of setting up fairy gardens.

A M R Sand Spoons 2018

The youngest two girls, A. and M., share their oldest sister’s entrepreneurial spirit.  They’re not quite mature enough to take on building projects yet, but they are old enough to handle sandpaper.  When I make spoons and spatulas, I contract out some of my sanding work to them, paying them a fraction of the purchase price of each utensil.  They get to earn a little pocket money while learning a valuable life-lesson: money comes from work.

My youngest, R., especially enjoys working alongside me.  When I pull out my tools, he often asks me if he can do woodworking, too.  He loves to try out different tools on bits of scrap wood.

Sometimes, though, he gets to do something genuinely useful.

R fixes a wooden truck 1-2018

When one of his wooden trucks broke, I glued it back together.  Then he reinforced the joint with a couple of screws.

He also likes to make his own building blocks.

R Wodworking 5-2018

He will happily saw up four or five blocks out of a single stick of wood, and then go build towers with them.  Sometimes I help him start the cut with the hand saw, but once he gets going, he finishes each cut.  A few years ago, I made that saw’s handle to 3/4 scale in order to fit a child’s hand.  I keep it sharp, and R. really likes using it.

R Wodworking 5-2018 (2)

R. also enjoys using a hand plane.  A Stanley #2 fits his hand just right.

But like all good woodworkers, he also knows that woodworking is hard work.  It takes a lot of energy, especially when you’re a kid.

R Wodworking 5-2018 (done)

Sometimes you just have to take a break and look at the clouds.

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