Spoon Carving: From Log to Table

It all starts with a log.  Usually the log comes from somebody who has taken down a tree and just wants the trunk out of the way.  Other times, I go looking for something special.

Logs are heavy, unwieldy things.  So the first step is to get it down into manageable pieces.  If it’s a long log, I cut it into 3′-4′ lengths with a chainsaw.  Then using steel wedges and a sledge hammer, I split the log into halves, then into quarters, and (if it’s a really big log) into eighths.  Splitting out the log means that the wood’s grain will run straight from one end of the piece to the other, so when I eventually make spoons out of the pieces, the grain will run true from one end of the spoon to the other.

Then I run each piece of wood through the bandsaw, sawing them into blanks that measure between 1/2″ and 1″ thick and as wide as I can manage.  It’s a slow, cumbersome process, and probably my least favorite part of making spoons.


I get excited, however, when the stock comes out this pretty.  This is spalted pecan; the spalting occurs naturally in some logs after they are felled, though there are ways to encourage it happening.  I find that woodenware made from spalted pecan sells very well.


Although I bill my utensils as hand-made with traditional hand tools, I do use a bandsaw to saw out the blanks to rough shape.  This process allows me to select the best grain for each piece while also allowing me to get the most out of each piece of figured wood.  I like to let the machines do the precision donkey-work that they’re so good at, leaving me time to do the fun stuff–the shaping and carving.  If you do a lot of hand-work, it’s important to economize on time and energy where you can.

Spoon blanks 10-2016

An hour at the bandsaw yields a big pile of blanks. That should last me a month or so.


I use a single carving gouge to shape the inside of the bowl.  Pecan is hard stuff to carve, but with a very sharp edge and a little care, the surface ends up very smooth.


A drawknife and two spokeshaves take care of the rest of the spoon.  It’s almost a pity the work  goes so fast, because the spokeshave work is my favorite part.  I finish up with a couple of card scrapers, which remove any tool marks and leave smooth curves everywhere.  It takes me about twenty minutes to go from a rough blank to what you see above.  Yes, that’s twenty (20) minutes.  I’ve timed it.  You get pretty fast after you’ve made a couple hundred of these things.

After rinsing in clear water to raise the grain, I sand each spoon briefly.  I don’t enjoy sanding, so I do as little as I can.  But the sanding does relieve all the sharp edges, and it smooths the grain down so it feels good in the hand and food doesn’t stick.

The last step is to apply an oil finish.

The finish warms the wood’s natural coloring and brings out subtle color contrasts, especially in the spalted wood.  Plus, it puts a subtle shine on the utensil, which customers love.


Then, it’s market time.  Here, my oldest daughter and I attend the table at the craft market.  When people approach the table, I encourage them to pick things up.  Lots of people are surprised at how smooth the wood feels.  Many of them like hearing about where each piece of wood came from.  After all, they’re not just buying a utensil; they’re buying a little piece of a story.

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It Doesn’t Matter What Route You Take, As Long As You Get There, Right?

“It doesn’t matter what route you take, as long as you reach your destination.”

I see different versions of this sentiment pop up frequently on various forums.  It’s usually offered as a reasonable middle ground when two people are hotly disputing the “right” way to do something, whether that is to join two pieces of wood together, shape a pipe stem, or write a poem.

The problem with the statement is that it’s misleading on at least two levels.

First, for anybody who is trying to build skill, the method does matter.  It matters a lot.  Whether you are learning to sharpen a chisel, play the clarinet, or hit a baseball, as long as you are still learning the basics, you have to master the fundamental methods.  If you want to learn to hit a baseball, you can use a closed stance or an open stance, but if you don’t know how to keep your head down, rotate your hips, and follow through, you’ll never hit well.  You might use water stones, diamond stones, or sandpaper to sharpen a chisel, but if you don’t keep a consistent angle, you’ll never raise a wire edge.  Whatever the task, there are usually several sound methods to choose from, but they all fall within a narrow range of practices that yield predictable results.

One of the best ways to learn a skill is to set strict limits on yourself.  If you want to learn to parallel park, you could commit to parking only in parallel parking spaces for a month.  If you want to learn to use hand tools effectively, you could commit to building a major project with only hand tools.  In the woodworking community, however, anybody who says, “I’m going to build this using ONLY hand tools” is often met with a lot of raised eyebrows.  Yet there is great value in setting arbitrary boundaries for yourself, IF you are doing it in order to build skill and not just for bragging rights.

Secondly, altering the route often alters the destination. And that’s where the metaphor of a project as a journey gets us into trouble.

Does it really matter whether you walk or drive across town if you end up in the same place? I say yes, it does matter. In walking, you may find yourself taking shortcuts that would be impossible in a car.  And you have been fully present in more places along the way, and you will see the destination differently when you do arrive, albeit several hours after the guy who drove the car.  Or you may find that you didn’t really need to go all the way across town, and that what you needed was within walking distance all the time.

Let me use a silly example: Theodore Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) was once challenged by a friend to write a whole children’s book using 50 words or fewer. On its face, it’s a dumb idea. Why limit yourself to only 50 words when there are hundreds of thousands of English words to choose from–not to mention the multitude of made-up words that Geisel was so fond of? But Geisel took the bet, and he wrote one of his most memorable books ever: Green Eggs & Ham.  Without those limits, he would have written quite a different book.

Similarly, if I limit myself to certain kinds of tools tools, that always affects how my projects look/feel at the end.  When working with machines, for example, workpieces must often be milled to precise dimensions that hand tools couldn’t care less about.  Some time ago, Woodworking Magazine (April 2008) had a feature article on making two Stickley tabouret tables, one of which wad made primarily with power tools and the other primarily with hand tools.  From one photograph of the two tables side by side, it is easy to tell which one was made with hand tools. (I’d show a picture, but I fear copyright infringement.) The one with the shallow curves on the stretchers was made primarily with hand tools.  Those curves are easy to shape by hand with a spokeshave; the tight curves on the other table’s stretchers could also be made with hand tools, but not as easily as the shallow curves.   Neither table is necessarily better than the other, but they are two different tables.

So yes, the route you take matters.  If the destination matters at all, then so does the journey.

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Countdown to Simplicity

I like simple tools, and the simpler the better.  One measure of simplicity is the number of discrete parts the tool is made of.  Some relatively simple tools, such as a hand plane or an eggbeater drill, have a lot of parts.  Fully disassemble a typical hand plane, and you will have twenty or more parts, depending on how you count the parts for the frog assembly.  Some eggbeater drills are even more complex.  And I don’t even want to think about how many parts my band saw or my drill press has!

Other tools have very few parts, but even some of the simplest tools often have more parts than we might think.  Quick, how many parts does a handsaw have?  You might say two–the handle and the blade.  True, but what about the nuts and bolts that keep the handle in place?  A big handsaw might have a dozen parts total: a blade, a handle, five bolts, and five nuts.

Counting parts is amusing, I suppose, but it also reveals something about your tools.  The fewer the parts, the less there is to go wrong, and the easier the tool is to repair if it breaks.  So, in honor of simple tools, here are a few of my favorites, in descending order.

Simple Tools 2013 - 1

Five Parts

My wooden jack plane has five parts: the stock, the wedge, and a three-piece cutting assembly (blade, chipbreaker, and screw).  That, at least, is the number of pieces it can ordinarily be broken down into.  Looked at another way, there are two more parts: the tote and the strike button.  From the point of view of the user the tool has five parts, but from the point of view of the manufacturer it has seven, so I admit I’m fudging this one.

Another tool that really does have five parts is one of my axes.  It has a handle, a head, a wooden wedge, and two metal wedges.  In use, of course, it’s a one-piece tool.  You disassemble it only when you replace the handle–which happens a little more often than I’d like to admit.  I need to work on my aim.

Four Parts

My favorite shop-made marking gauges have four discrete parts: the arm, the cutter, the fence, and the wedge.  Normally it can be taken apart into three parts, but the cutter is certainly distinct in function (and material) from the arm.  So I count this as a four-part tool.

Three Parts

Diamond Sharpening Stone Box 2016

Sharpening stones are tools, too.  And my diamond sharpening stone has three parts: the stone, the bottom of box, and the lid.  Each part is functional.  The base allows the stone to be clamped in a vise when I’m sharpening.  The lid protects the stone’s surface, certainly, but it’s also useful for holding small parts like chipbreaker screws while I’m sharpening irons.


My hewing hatchet also has three parts: the head, the handle, and a single wooden wedge. Like an axe, it is a one-piece tool in daily use, but full disassembly yields three pieces.

Two Parts

Mallet Batch 12-2011 - - 06

My two-part tools are among my favorites–and I have a lot of them.  My joiner’s mallets, for example, are made up of a handle wedged through a tapered mortise in the solid head.  Frequent use keeps the head tight on the handle, though enough pounding on the handle’s end can separate them.

My birdcage awl, my gouges, and many of my chisels are also two-part tools: just a blade and a handle.  Ideally, the handles are fixed permanently in place until they need to be replaced–which I hope is seldom or never.  I have never yet replaced a chisel handle that I made.

One Part

Card Scraper and Ruler

While this ruler is usually used with a combination-square head, it’s useful as a tool in its own right.  The tool is built for accuracy, and a single piece is best.

My favorite one-piece tool is a card scraper.  I must have a dozen or more in several shapes.  They get used on nearly every project I work on, from fine furniture to wooden spoons and spatulas.  Once I learned how to sharpen card scrapers, they became absolutely indispensable tools in my tool chest.


I enjoy using complicated hand tools–my joinery planes, for example–but the real workhorses in the shop tend to be my simplest tools, the ones that get used on every project.  I’d call myself a minimalist, except that I have LOT of simple tools.  (Seventeen handsaws and counting…)  And that, I suppose, is another level of complexity to be addressed another time.

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Then Disaster Struck: Dining Table Repair

We had been eating around our new dining table for about week.  Then one afternoon my oldest daughter and I were sitting in the living room when we heard a tremendous crash from the dining room.  We ran out to find a huge mess–and a broken table.

There are wooden valances above each of the dining room windows, and we had been storing books on top of the valances for years.  But something happened that afternoon, and one of the valances came down, books and all, right onto one edge of our new table.  Thank God nobody was sitting there at the time!

Dining Table Repair August 2016

The top was split most of the way down its length, and the support underneath was broken in two.

Dining Table Repair August 2016

It must have been a couple hundred pounds of books that fell five feet before they hit the table top.  The books that had fallen weren’t harmed much.   The valance, however, had broken in a couple places.  (I guess this was a literal case of multivalence?  Okay, sorry, that pun is bad even by my standards.)  When I saw it, I collapsed onto the floor with my head in my hands.  There was nothing for it but to clean up the mess and figure out how to repair my new table.

The top was a clean break, so I knew I could glue it back together without much difficulty.  (By the way, notice that the wood did not break at any of the joints–a properly-made edge joint is indeed stronger than the wood itself!)  The support underneath was another matter.  Each I-shaped assembly is a single, solid piece.  I had neither time nor materials to rebuild the whole assembly.  So I opted for a reinforcement that I’ve seen used for weakened joists in old houses.

Dining Table Repair August 2016

The crack did not run the full length of the table.  I think the bolts holding the top onto the legs kept it together at the far end.  I put a clamp onto the far, undamaged end to keep it together.  Then I used wooden wedges to expand the crack far enough to force wood glue down into it.  Toothpicks and a palate knife were useful in spreading the glue throughout the crack.  I used a couple of cauls to keep the joint aligned. Everything seemed to go together pretty well.

Then it was time to work on the undercarriage.

Dining Table Repair August 2016

Once the glue was dry on the top, but before I pulled all the clamps off, I loosened the lag screws that held the broken piece to the top.  I shot some Liquid Nails adhesive into the break and pulled the two pieces together with clamps.

Dining Table Repair August 2016

Just to be clear: I glued the two pieces together only for alignment, not for strength.  Once that glue was dry, it was time to install a reinforcement.

Dining Table Repair August 2016

I cut a clear 1 1/2X2 from yellow pine and screwed it to the wood on each side of the break.  Then I tightened up the lag screws in the original piece.

Dining Table Repair August 2016

It doesn’t look pretty, but the result is a stable, solid table.  And unless you crawl under the table, you’ll never see that it’s been repaired.

And as for the top, the glue line is nearly invisible.

Dining Table Repair August 2016Dining Table Repair August 2016

All that’s left is to scrape/sand the glue line perfectly flush and refinish it.  But at this rate, I’ll probably just let the younger kids continue to destroy the current finish, which already has some noticeable scratches in it.  Then after a couple years (or decades) I’ll sand it all down and do a proper refinishing job.

Because, frankly, it took me two afternoons to repair the table, and by that time the family was a little tired of not having a table for meals.  I got the undercarriage fixed just in time to eat supper.

Dining Table Repair August 2016

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Building a Dining Table, Part Three: Assembly and Inlay

Each stage of building this table has had its unique challenges.  First it was cutting usable lumber out of some pretty seriously damaged boards.  Then it was surfacing everything by hand.  Now, after the final glue-up, I was faced with the prospect of smooth-planing a panel that was significantly wider and longer than my workbench. I decided that I would set aside my Western, workbench-centric methods and embrace an Eastern approach to the problem.

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I’ve seen videos of traditional Japanese woodworkers, who work sitting on the floor, often holding workpieces with their feet.  In imitation, I sat on the panel to hold it down.  I worked barefoot, as Japanese woodworkers do, so as not to mar the surface with my shoes.  (Otherwise I NEVER work wood barefoot, but at this height it would be pretty hard to drop anything heavy or sharp on my foot.)  After trying unsuccessfully to push my smoothing plane across the panel, I turned it around and pulled it.  Asian hand planes are typically pulled, not pushed, and now I know why.  Pulling a plane is much easier than pushing it when sitting.  I found my smoothing plane was actually pretty easy to pull, and even comfortable to hold backwards–one hand on the knob and the other hand wrapped around the tote.  And no, pulling a plane like this is not as dangerous to certain body parts as it looks.

With the panel smooth, it it was time to flip it back over (with help!) and attach the top.

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I nailed battens alongside the base, just to help keep the the base in alignment and to steady the base a bit.  The base is attached to the top with lag screws in generously oversize holes, to allow for the significant seasonal movement that this top will see.  A ratcheting brace made it easy to bore a hole next to the upright.

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I also screwed some diagonal battens to the ends to reinforce the overhanging ends.

Note that the supports go nearly to each edge.  The feet of the table are just as wide, and the result is a very stable base.  In use, the kids haven’t even come close to upsetting the table, and they won’t.

The final stage before finishing was dealing with the flaws in the top.  This was, as I have said, “rustic” lumber, with various voids and knots, and a lot bug holes.  Where most would see these as flaws, I now see these as potential decorative features.  The idea is to fill in the voids with crushed stone in order to speckle the surface with contrasting color–a simple form of inlay.  I learned this technique from a turner, who uses it to fill checks and other voids in the wooden bowls he makes.

Some of the voids are deep, so the first step is to back-fill the deeper voids with other materials.

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Bug holes could often be filled with toothpicks.  Some of the holes were shallow, but a few went all the way through the board.  In any case, I cut off the toothpick so it settled just below the surface of the wood.  Other, wider holes were filled in with sawdust topped with superglue.  That provided a stable substrate for the stone.  I could have just filled the holes with just the crushed stone, but that stuff is expensive ($10 for a few ounces) and sawdust is free.

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I topped off each void with the crushed stone.  It’s pretty fine-grained, but not quite a powder.  It’s about the consistency of table salt.  (The stone is sold in several consistencies–but for this application, the finer the better.)  A baby spoon and a toothbrush are handy for directing the stone into the hole.   You can’t just fill the holes in level, or it will sink down into the hole once you add the superglue.  I mounded up the stone slightly over each void, and then saturated each pile with a few drops of superglue–the regular liquid kind, not the gel kind.  The immediate result looks pretty awful.

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The process is the same for small holes (like bug holes) and larger voids, like knots. It even works with holes made by accidentally drilling a pilot hole for a screw too deep and coming up through the top by mistake.  Hypothetically, of course…

The superglue will dry in an hour or two, depending on the size of the void.  Once it has hardened up, it’s time to cut it down to the level of the surrounding wood.

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I used a card scraper to level the surface.  The scraper was a lot faster than sandpaper, but it was still a lot of work.  But the superglue-impregnated stone actually scraped quite well.  I was afraid it would dull the scrapers prematurely, but it didn’t.  A thick, stiff scraper worked better than a thin one.

After scraping, I lightly sanded the whole tabletop and applied a few coats of semi-gloss polyurethane.  The malachite-filled voids came out pretty well.

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Dining Table Build 7-2016 sm

This is definitely a design feature that I will use again.  I am no longer afraid of lumber with bug holes, small knots, and other voids.  There are other color options, too, besides the green malachite: pink coral, white stone, and even aluminum filings (which I’ve used successfully before).  Crushed stone of many kinds can be bought in small amounts on Amazon.  With some patience and a few tools, it’s an easy technique to master.

And finally the table is done.

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Dining Table Build 7-2016 sm

Now it’s time to pull up some chairs and gather around for family meals.

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Building a Dining Table, Part 2: Clamps and Pegs

The majority of my time on this project was spent surfacing the boards for the top.  I hand-planed all the boards from the rough-sawn stock, and I must have carried out four or five garbage bags of wood shavings in the course of this build.  (We should have enough kindling for our fire pit for the next few months, at least.)  I’m seriously considering buying an electric planer to help with the rough work.

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On each board, I began with my jack plane, going diagonal to the grain and taking a thick shaving , just to flatten the board and remove the saw marks.  Then I was able to decide which side would be the face and which one I could leave rough-planed.

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On the good face, I planed each board as straight as I could with my joiner plane and finished with the smoothing plane.  As it happened, I probably wasted my time with the smoothing plane because I still had to re-plane each board level after each glue-up.  Now I know.

As I finished planing each board, I edge-glued two or three together and let the glue set up as I continued planing the next boards.  The first glue-ups were pretty simple.

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Cauls and battens helped a lot with alignment.  I had no desire to thickness each board to the exact same thickness by hand, so they’re all a little different in thickness.  Only the top is leveled out.

As I began to glue panels to each other, things got more cumbersome.

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On the final two glue-ups, I ended up using my own weight to align the boards as they rested on cauls.  I used my pipe clamps to their fullest extent, and everything came together in the end.  The final dimensions of the top are 90″ long and 44″ wide.

In the meantime, as the glue dried, I worked on the leg assemblies.  Each I-shaped base is tenoned together with double tenons.  The tenons were big enough that they got cut with my ripsaw.

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I really need to sharpen it, but that’s a task for another day.  (As per spousal noise ordinances banning indoor metal work, all saw sharpening takes now place out of doors–and It’s way too hot outside for that.)

Cutting the tenons left a lot of small offcuts, which one of the kids thought looked a lot like building blocks.

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So this is what I found on my workbench the next morning.  I almost hated to clear it off in order to get back to work.  In retrospect, I should have challenged somebody to a game of Jenga first.

I always cut my tenons first, then use them to help me lay out the mortises.  I usually chop small mortises with a mortise chisel, but these mortises were big and deep.  So I drilled out most of the waste using a Forstner bit on the drill press, but then I squared them up by hand.

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I think this exemplifies my ideal power-tool/hand-tool balance.  I prefer to use the power tools to do the precision donkey-work, which is what they’re good at.  It saves me time and effort, which leaves me freer to do the fun tasks by hand.

Usually glue is more than adequate to keep a well-cut mortise and tenon joint together, but for extra security (and a cool, retro look) there are some ways to reinforce the joint by locking it together mechanically.  One time-honored method is draw-boring, or pegging.  At its simplest, it might involve assembling the joint, drilling through both members, and driving in a dowel to keep everything together.  But true draw-boring works a little differently (and please excuse the explanation if you already know this).

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First drill through the mortise only, then insert the tenon and mark the location of the hole on the tenon.  Pull the tenon out and drill through the tenon, offsetting the hole slightly toward the tenon shoulder.  The holes are thus intentionally misaligned.  The peg is shaved to an octagonal cross-section for a tight fit in the hole (the corners of the octagon dig into the round hole and hold the peg securely in place).  When the peg is driven through the misaligned holes, it pulls the joint together tightly.  There’s no need for clamps, and even glue might be optional.  (I did use glue anyway, for what it’s worth.)  Just drive the pins in and cut them off flush.  The joint is locked together forever.

I’ve used a number of different woods for draw-bore pins.  A tough wood like pecan works pretty well, but oak really does work best of anything I’ve tried.  It’s strong, flexible, and easy to shape with a chisel.  I perpetually keep a few pieces of straight-grained oak, well dried, for making pins.

The end pieces assembled, I then attached the trestle with tusked tenons in order to make the base dis-assemblable.  Full disclosure: I cut the mortises in the uprights before assembling everything.  Chopping mortises on something that’s already assembled would have been very awkward, so the picture below shows the whole base assembly dry-fitted.

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A tusked tenon is a tenon that extends well beyond the mortised piece and has a mortise cut into the tenon.  This smaller mortise has one angled wall that matches a long wedge, called a “tusk.” Normally you drive in the tusks to tighten up the joint, but we live in Alabama, where the Tusks-are-loose-a.  (Terrible, I know.  But I’ve been waiting years to use that joke.)

Before I put the table top on the base, I decided to stress-test it for strength.

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Yep, it holds all the kids.  It’s plenty strong enough to support the table top.

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Building a Dining Table, Part 1: Shavings and Shaping

Our current dining table was built a long time ago by one of my wife’s relatives. (We’re still not sure exactly who built it.  Family lore was ambiguous, but after some genealogical research, my wife narrowed down to two guys, a great-uncle and a great-great uncle, both of whom were professional craftsmen.)  The table is something of a family heirloom, but it’s seen better days. It shakes every time one of the kids bumps it, and the top is nothing like flat. The removable leaves are all warped and don’t stay together anymore, and I can’t remember the last time we needed to remove the leaves to shrink the table down anyway.  Even fully extended, the table is still a little too small for us, especially when we have company.  And my youngest kids hate the table’s apron, which bumps their legs when they sit in their youth chairs.

I’ve wanted to build a replacement for several years.  So after some deliberation with the rest of the family, we came up with my directives:

1. Trestle-style legs.
2. Solid, hardwood top with no apron.
3. Big enough to seat 10 people comfortably (our family is now at 7).

A few weeks ago, I mentioned the project to a guy I know who owns a portable sawmill, and he offered me some cherry boards.  I gladly accepted, though neither of us were sure that he could provide me with enough for the whole table.  When I went to load up the boards, we found that they had been exposed to a little too much weather.  But the price was right, so I took all I could get.

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This is what most of the boards looked like when I brought them home–rotted edges, bug holes, and other defects.  It was a little dispiriting at first, but the more I looked at the boards, the more I saw some potential in each one.

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The damage on most of the boards was confined to ends and edges, so using a chalkline, I was able to mark out some pretty wide boards. I used Borax to treat it all for bugs, and I used the bandsaw to cut off the damaged edges.  Even using the bandsaw to do the hardest work, I still managed to bring myself to the brink of heat-exhaustion in the July heat.

One of the boards I had picked up–a short, thick beam–turned out to be cedar, not cherry.  It had a big wane edge and a lot of sapwood, but it was enough that I was able to rip it in half and edge-glue the pieces to make my central beam, which will connect the two leg assemblies that support the table top.

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I wish I could share the scent with you as well as the image. My whole dining room smelled like cedar shavings for hours!

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Once the two pieces were glued up, it was time to play my favorite game: Find the Glue Line!  You can see it only if you look carefully at the grain.

Well, in the interests of full disclosure, there were a couple little gaps in the joint further down the board, but nothing too detrimental to overall stability. And it’s not like anybody will see it under the table anyway, right? Right.

Next I spent a good bit of time shaping the feet and stretchers for the trestles. This was the fun part, though I had to get a little creative in order to work around a couple big defects in the boards I had. I just managed to do it without sacrificing the shape I had in mind.

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First I made the inside radius with a big drill bit. I was silly enough to try this by hand with a bit and brace the first time around. My 1 1/2″ bit is NOT made for hardwoods. I gave up after one hole and used the drill press for the rest, and my elbows thank me.

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After the drill press and the band saw, it was hand work. I used rasps and files for the convex work. Then I used a spokeshave and a file for the bullnose work getting into the radius.  On surfaces that would show, such as the tops of the legs, I removed file marks with a card scraper and sandpaper, but on the undersides of pieces that would never be seen, I left the tool marks visible, not only to save time but also to give future generations clues about how the work was done.

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This is one of the feet.  I used a spokeshave for the chamfers, except on those tight, convex curves where a half-round file was called for.  I again cleaned up show surfaces with card scrapers and sandpaper.

Dining Table Build 7-2016 sm

The result is two top stretchers and two feet, which will be joined to each other by a central post.  The posts will, in turn, be connected by the cedar beam.

The table top, however, will require several glue-ups to get to the desired width, so next I will begin planing down boards and gluing them up.  While I wait for the glue to dry, I will continue to work on the leg assemblies in order to minimize waiting-time.

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This Is Why We Need Art

I was making dinner the other day, and I happened to glance out the window and see three boys walking home from the neighborhood swimming pool.  They were fooling around, as boys are wont to do, and I paid them little notice until I saw one stooping down in the middle of the street with a piece of chalk.  They all glanced around furtively, giggling a little as the boy finished.  Then they dashed away.

This is the drawing he left on my street:


Well, it’s not exactly “street art,” despite its having been drawn directly on a street.  It’s what you might call a “representational” drawing, not at all observational–or, for that matter, particularly interesting even as graffiti goes.  Despite the fact that the artist must have seen a number of such objects in the real world (remember, he just left the locker room of a public swimming pool), he does not even attempt a proportional rendition, nor is there any attempt at the provocative exaggeration so typical of the genre.  Vapid and jejune, this drawing fails even to mildly shock to middle-class suburban proprieties that it was probably intended to transgress.  There is nothing even remotely unique about the drawing, nothing to arrest the attention of a passerby.  If it was meant as a protest, it is a remarkably feeble one.  If it was meant as a joke, it’s one we’ve all heard before.  We take in the banality at a glance and dismiss it with a shrug.

But that, I suppose, is only to be expected given its being executed in about twenty seconds by a twelve-year-old boy.  It got me thinking, though, that occasionally we all have the opportunity to express ourselves– to make our mark, to say something significant–outside of or even against the constraints of our cultural norms.  How do we respond to that opportunity?  If we could say anything and get away with it, what would we say?  How many people really have something more significant to say than this twelve-year-old boy did?

Such opportunities come seldom and without warning, and we are likely to react by reproducing whatever one of my friends calls “the artwork on the walls of our minds.”  Whatever images or objects we have contemplated, whatever songs or poems we have memorized, it is these that will naturally spring to our consciousness when we are summoned to make a public statement.  And when we fail to respond to that summons with anything substantial, it reveals how impoverished our memory and imagination truly are.  The average mind is cluttered with trash–advertising jingles, sentimental quotations, and (let’s be frank) pornography–that has become permanent by sheer force of repetition.

What would have happened, I wonder, had this young man spent some serious time in school (or even at home) contemplating the works of the great painters and sculptors?  What if he had memorized a few evocative poems?  Perhaps he might have left something really provocative on the street outside my house.  I know some poems from Catullus that he might find downright shocking.

My preference, though, is for irony.  So I grabbed a piece of sidewalk chalk and wrote an ironizing caption underneath the picture.


The quotation is from Proverbs 5:16: “Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets?”  I don’t expect that the original artist would recognize or understand the quotation, let alone the sexual imagery of the lines.  I left off the source reference because, where I live, anything with a Bible-verse reference is generally taken as a criticism.  I wasn’t aiming to condemn; I just wanted to provoke a moment of puzzlement in anybody who happened to see the captioned drawing.

I happened to know this quotation because I teach sections of Proverbs as poetry in my World Literature class.  It’s part of the artwork hanging on the walls of my mind, alongside lines from Shakespeare and poems by Gerard Manly Hopkins and W. H. Auden.  (My stock of visual images is more limited, and consists mainly of furniture types and species of wood.)  I’d like to add more, so I’m working on memorizing a few Psalms, alongside poems by John Milton and T. S. Eliot.

It takes a lot of work to hang such artwork on the walls of our minds, but it will stand us in good stead when we are called upon to leave our mark on the world.


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Getting It Done: 4 Tips for Marathon Woodworkers

Most woodworkers I know fall into one of two categories: the Piddler-Putterer, and the Marathoner.  The Piddler-Putterer starts a lot of projects and tinkers with them from time to time, but he’s in no hurry.  He seldom finishes a project, either because he’s afraid to screw something up or because he genuinely enjoys the process more than the product.  His shop is a mass of pieces from half-finished projects.  The Marathoner, on the other hand, plunges into a project heart-and-soul, plowing ahead until the project is completed.  He’s usually in a hurry, and he never leaves a project unfinished.  His shop may be cluttered by offcuts and scraps, but you won’t find semi-abandoned projects anywhere about.  Because he can’t leave things unfinished, he is constantly tempted by shortcuts, especially late in the project, when “good enough” takes the place of “do it right.”Handplanes on Benchtop 2016

I suppose most serious amateur woodworkers fall somewhere between those two extremes, but as for myself, I’m a proud Marathoner.  According to my Marathoner nature, I  prefer to work 8-12 hours at a stretch, with perhaps a 10-minute lunch break when I wolf down a sandwich before racing back to work.  I have gotten projects done this way, but I haven’t always been pleased with the results.  Looking over a project a month or a year later, I begin to see flaws that, had I not been in such a hurry, I could have seen and corrected while I was in the process of building.

Recently I’ve worked on pacing myself, breaking the worst Marathoner habits.  Here are four ways I’ve been able to moderate my Marathoner tendencies (somewhat).

1. Take Coffee Breaks

After about two hours of work, it’s time for a 10-minute coffee break.  Sitting down and staring at my work in progress often feels like a waste of time, but mentally it’s some of my most productive shop time.  Coffee Break 2016The coffee break allows me to look at what I’ve done, think about what I’m about to do, and get a different perspective on things–literally–because I can see objects from a different angle than I do standing up.  It also gives me time to consider design choices as I think several steps ahead in the project.

I learned the value of the coffee break when I worked on a maintenance crew at a summer camp.  We took coffee breaks every two hours, and at first it felt like a waste of time.  Why were we just sitting around when we could be out there getting the job done?  I didn’t even drink coffee back then!  As the summer wore on and the work became more physically demanding, I understood.  We were pacing ourselves.  Now that I’m no longer 17 years old, my body appreciates regular breaks–and my brain appreciates the coffee.

2. Sharpen, Sharpen, Sharpen

Diamond Sharpening Stone Box 2016It’s all too easy to get my head buried in a project and neglect the preventive maintenance that my tools require for optimal performance.  The most important is sharpening.  A Marathoner is prone to thinking “just one more board,” “just one more cut,” “just one more piece” before pausing to sharpen, even though he knows that he should have resharpened his plane or chisel long ago.  I still hate having to interrupt my work to hone an edge, but I have learned the law of diminishing returns from letting tools go dull.  Dull tools are harder to push, so I tire more quickly.  Tool marks from dull edges are more likely to leave jagged tool marks, and they are more likely to stick, slip, and cut me.  There’s nothing like profuse bleeding to bring the work to a standstill.

Now I keep my sharpening equipment perpetually on the bench.  My strop is always at hand, and I regularly refresh chisel edges.  Every couple of boards, I strop my plane irons, too.  The tools are easy to push and less likely to injure me.  And the more frequently I refresh edges, the quicker each sharpening is.  As one wise woodworker has said, “Sharpen more to sharpen less.”

3. Sweep Up

Chips and shavings collect on and around my workbench at an alarming rate, and it’s easy to just let them pile up as I move from task to task. Pile of Shavings 2016 It is better, though, to stop and sweep up the mess periodically, usually each time I change tasks.  When I’m done planing a set of boards, I sweep up the shavings.  When I’m done sawing dovetails or chopping mortises, I pause to sweep up the dust or chips.  Not only does it keep the workspace clean (I’ve been known to misplace tools under piles of shavings!), but it also gives me some breathing space–time for my body to relax and my mind to wander.

A clean workspace is also safer, both for myself and my workpieces.  Sawdust on the floor is slippery, especially when there are shavings on top of it.  And chips on the bench top all too easily get under workpieces and dent them.  Taking just a minute to sweep the bench top and the floor prevents many problems.

4. Don’t Work Late

Beautiful Waste Fall 2015When I was in school, I pulled a couple “all-nighters,” but I was never proud of the results afterward.  As a Marathon worker, I am sometimes tempted to work long into the night in order to finish a project on a self-imposed deadline.  But I’ve learned that it’s usually best to go to bed instead.  In fact, I try hard not to do any serious woodworking after supper (though I will allow myself to leave clean-up for the late evening).  It’s not just that after supper is family-time, either.  If I try to do demanding physical labor when I’m tired, I’m more likely to get frustrated or angry when something doesn’t go right, and because I’m tired, I’m that much more likely to make mistakes in the first place.

I realize that some amateur woodworkers do their work primarily in the evenings, and I don’t object.  But when I’ve put in a full day at the workbench (say, on a Saturday or during summer vacation), I don’t allow myself to work after supper.  My mind and body need time to relax before bed time, especially when I’m going to get up the next morning and do it all over again.

Becoming a better woodworker is not just about learning to work.  It’s also about learning to rest.

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Build a Cedar Bench in an Hour

One summer afternoon not long ago, my wife and oldest daughter had gone out, leaving me to mind the little ones.  We decided to make a fire in the fire pit and roast hot dogs for supper.  We lit the fire and sat back in our lawn chairs.


Soon, though, I got to thinking that I’d rather not have the buns, hot dogs, and condiments just sitting on the ground.  For one thing, little kids don’t always watch where they step.  For another, the ants are really good at finding food this time of year.  If only I had some sort of low bench or table to put everything on.

Then it struck me.  I could build  one!  We had just started the fire, so I told the kids the plan: I would build them a little table in the time it would take for the fire to burn down to coals.  We would build a simple “staked” bench: four legs stuck into tapered holes in a single-piece top.  And it would be a race!

I went down to my lumber stash and pulled out a short, thick plank of knotty cedar that I had kept for years.  (I had picked it up for practically nothing at a sawmill in Texas before we moved to Alabama.) Staked Cedar Bench 2016 In my firewood pile, I had some short cedar logs that I had salvaged when I helped a friend clear some brush at his house a couple years ago.  The sapwood had all rotted away, but the heartwood was perfectly intact.  I sawed the log into four sections on my bandsaw and then brought the pieces up to the workbench.

Using a drawknife, I shaved the weathered surface off the leg pieces, and oh my!  The cedar heart wood underneath was beautiful!  I almost hated to use it for roughly shaped legs, but the fire was burning down, and I had a bench to finish.  I roughly tapered one end of each leg and shaped a round, tapered tenon with a tenon cutter–essentially a giant pencil sharpener (shown at right).  The cedar shavings smelled wonderful.

Then it was time to bore and ream four holes in the bench’s top.  Using a sliding T-bevel as a visual guide, one of my daughters and I bored four holes with a brace and bit.  Then I quickly reamed them out with a taper-reamer to match the tenons.  I put some adhesive in each hole and pounded the legs in tight.  (The top cracked a little bit on one end, so we reinforced it with a couple strips of pine nailed to the bottom on either end.  My son bent over a nail or two with his little hammer.)  I sawed the legs flush, flipped it over, and there you have it: a staked bench!

Staked Cedar Bench 2016

It was ready just in time to roast the hot dogs.

Staked Cedar Bench 2016

And the marshmallows, too!

Staked Cedar Bench 2016

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