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!



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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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How to Make a Tobacco Pipe with Hand Tools, Part 4: Stem-Bending, Staining, and Finishing

On balance, I would say that half of pipe making involves sanding. It’s not exactly the fun part of making a pipe, but the results are worth the care and effort.

Theoretically, rasps and files are used to establish the pipe’s shape, while sandpaper is used to refine the surface.  In reality, though, careless sanding can alter the shape of a pipe and even ruin a perfectly good shape.  So, although the pipe looks almost finished, it still has a long way to go.  Sand thoroughly but carefully.

Pipe Making Process 2018

But before we sand, we need to bend the stem. Some pipes have straight stems, but many have a stem that’s bent, either a little or a lot, depending on the desired shape.

This vulcanite stem will bend easily with the application of a little heat. There are a couple ways to do this, but I like to use hot water.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Heat a small saucepan or kettle of water to a rolling boil on the stove.  Turn the heat off, and put in the stem.  A pipe-cleaner inserted all the way through helps a lot.  For example, I can bend the end of the pipe cleaner so I know which direction I’m supposed to bend the stem.  Also, the pipe cleaner prevents the airway from collapsing as the stem bends.  Furthermore, it allows me to get just the stem submerged.  (I’m not interested in bending the tenon.)

Vulcanite needs just a couple minutes in the hot water bath to become flexible.  (Acrylic stems will need a longer soak, often up to 5 minutes.)  At your kitchen sink, turn on the cold water.  Remove the stem and bend it in your fingers.  (Longer stems, especially churchwardens, may require a form in order to establish a consistent bend.)  Run the stem under the cold water to set the bend.  Look at the bend closely to see if you got it right.  If not, back into the hot water it goes.  It may take two or three tries to get the bend exactly where you want it.

Now, especially you’re married, don’t forget to clean up the kitchen and dump out that pan of water when you’re done.  Nobody wants pipe-stem-flavored soup.

Next comes sanding.  Prepare yourself, because pipe making requires a LOT of sanding.

Pipe Making Process 2018

First, apply a dye to the wood.  It doesn’t much matter which color–as long as it’s not black–whatever color you eventually intend to stain the pipe will work just fine.

This stain doesn’t have anything to do with coloring the wood.  What it does is make scratches visible.  You are about to sand through several grits, each one removing the scratches left from the previous grit, until the scratches are too fine to be seen.  The stain makes those scratches easy to see.  In the picture above, you can see how the stain brings out the grain pattern, but if you look closely, you can also see distinct file marks all over the surface of the wood.  Those file marks would be much harder to see without the dye.

I generally begin sanding with 150 grit sandpaper.  Then I work down through 220, 320, 400, 600, and 1,000.

Pipe Making Process 2018

You can see my secret sanding weapon in the picture above: it’s a foam-backed emery board, which comes in a pack of three at Walmart.  I wrap the sandpaper around the board, and it gives me very good control.

Sand off all the stained area, and sand down the entire stem, too.  It’s a simple, somewhat monotonous process: stain, sand, and repeat with the next lowest grit.

Pipe Making Process 2018

You can see here how the dye has “caught” in several file marks, which require additional staining.

Sanding the stem takes even more care than sanding the wood.  The wood has a natural texture that tends to hide the smallest scratches, but the vulcanite should be absolutely smooth and scratch-free.  I usually spend twice as much time sanding the stem as I do on the rest of the pipe.  You can’t use a dye to bring out scratches in the stem, but you can look at the surface carefully under raking light.

Pipe Making Process 2018

As you sand, especially with the lower grits, be careful around the rim and other delicate areas.  You want to keep the whole shape crisp and well-defined.  Just a few errant strokes, especially with an aggressive grit, can change the whole shape of the pipe.

Sand with the grain lines as much as possible, too.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Once I get down to the lowest two grits (600 and 1,000), I have to start lubricating the sandpaper with water or mineral spirits, otherwise the sandpaper loads up with dust and stops cutting.

For the stem, you may well have to sand down to 1,500-grit in order to remove the finest scratches.  If the home-center doesn’t have the finest grits, you can get them at any auto-parts store.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Just to reiterate, this process is going to use a LOT of sandpaper.  But don’t rush the sanding process.  With briar wood, you can achieve an exceptionally smooth surface, and you don’t want stray scratches ruining the look of your pipe.

Pipe Making Process 2018

After sanding, the final stage in smoothing out the pipe is buffing.  The stem especially benefits from buffing.  I have a dedicated buffing machine outfitted with a stiff, cotton wheel, but they make buffing wheel attachments for drill presses, too.

I buff the stem with Tripoli wax.  You can buff the whole pipe if you like; it does give it a nice shine.  Just use a light touch, use both hands, and hold on tight!  If you’re not careful, the buffing wheel can grab your pipe out of your hands and fling it across the workshop–or even right into your face.  Wear eye-protection, too.  Flying pipes are no joke.

With the buffing complete, you can now stain your pipe the color you want.  Natural briar will finish fairly light but darken over time, but in order to bring out the figure of the wood, it’s best to use a dye.

But don’t use that swill they sell at the local home-center.  You are far better off using either a leather dye or an aniline dye.  Fiebing’s leather dye is an excellent choice.  Many pipes are stained in two stages, first with a darker base-color (usually a very dark brown) and then with a lighter color (often a red, orange, or yellow).  I’m using only one stain on this particular pipe.

Pipe Making Process 2018

To apply the stain, first warm up the wood with a hairdryer.  (Be careful not to heat everything so hot that the stem loses its bend.  I’ve made that mistake before!)  The wood should be warm to the touch all over.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Immediately apply the stain evenly to the entire the surface using a cotton swab.  Be careful to keep the stain out of the tobacco chamber.  It’s not that stain in the chamber will affect how a pipe smokes, but it does look bad.  If you do get stain in the chamber, you can always sand it out by taping some sandpaper around a dowel and using that to sand the chamber.  (You can even chuck the dowel in your drill press, if you like!)

Pipe Making Process 2018

Once the stain is dry and the wood is back to room-temperature, wipe down the pipe gently with denatured alcohol on a paper towel.  The result will be a nice, even stain–both on the pipe and on your fingers.  Wear rubber gloves if you don’t want dyed fingers for the next couple days.

Repeat the process with your second, lighter color if you are staining twice.

Now that you have the pipe the color you want it, it’s important to seal that color in.  I use a single coat of Danish oil over the whole stained surface.  (Watco Danish oil works just fine, but I use my own home-brew of equal parts safflower oil, mineral spirits, and polyurethane.)  As with the stain, do your best to keep the oil out of the chamber.


Pipe Making Process 2018

The Danish oil really brings out the figure in the briar.  Let the oil finish cure overnight at least, then buff gently with a soft, clean cloth until it’s no longer tacky.

It’s customary to use a top-coat of wax over the oil finish.  (If you don’t use oil under the wax, the stain will eventually bleed through when the pipe gets warm while being smoked, staining the smoker’s fingers.)  Carnauba wax, applied with a buffing wheel, is the usual finish, though a good paste-wax will also work in a pinch.

Buff the pipe until it shines!

Pipe #49 Briar Author 4-2018

Hopefully, the result is a pipe you can be proud of.

Pipe #49 Briar Author 4-2018

Posted in Build-Alongs, Tobacco Pipes, Tutorials, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How to Make a Tobacco Pipe with Hand Tools, Part 3: Shaping with Rasps and Files

When we left off last time, we had a stem inserted into a drilled block of briar wood.  Now, you could smoke this block if you wanted to (I’ve seen it done!), but you probably want to do some shaping in order to make your pipe look like, well… a pipe.

Pipe Making Process 2018

My first step in shaping is to draw some straight lines around the shape of the pipe and remove as much of the waste as I can with a saw.  Either a band saw or a hand saw will do nicely.  Just be careful not to over-cut your lines.

One of the most important parts of shaping is secure work-holding.  Most pipes are shaped on a lathe and then finished up on a disk-sander or belt-sander.  We, however, are going to be using hand tools, which require us to hold the work down mechanically.  I use a large handscrew set upright in my bench vise.

In order to make the handscrew adjustable while clamped in the vise, set a small scrap board behind one of the jaws of the handscrew.  Then, when you tighten the vise, one jaw of the handscrew will remain free and adjustable.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Use a rasp to shape the block down to your lines.  My favorite rasps for this operation are hand-stitched rasps from Lee Valley.  They’re a little more expensive than machine-made rasps, but they leave a much smoother surface.  I use a 10″ and 6″ half-round rasp.

A rasp is a two-handed tool, hence the importance of effective work-holding.  Keep the work securely clamped as you proceed.

It is important to leave the stem inserted as you shape the pipe.  Although it’s technically two pieces, you need to treat it as one solid object from here on out.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Eventually you will have to start cutting away your layout lines.  That’s when things get interesting, because you have to start shaping entirely from memory.  It really helps to have taken a picture of your original shape as a visual reference.

Okay, so there’s a simple procedure for shaping a pipe with hand tools.  Most pipe shapes are essentially two cylinders that intersect (or some variation thereof).  In order to make a cylinder with hand tools, you first make a shape that’s square in cross-section.  Then you take off each of the four corners to form an octagon.  Take off each of the sixteen corners, and you have something approaching a cylinder.  That’s what we’re doing with this pipe.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Here I’ve rasped the block roughly square, keeping the stem and the tobacco chamber in the center of everything.  Drawing the circumference of the pipe’s rim is a good idea.  I find myself drawing and re-drawing a lot of layout lines throughout the shaping process.  You don’t want things to be any more spontaneous than they have to be.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Beginning with the top of the pipe’s bowl, I have begun to take off the four corners to form an octagon.

Pipe Making Process 2018

The most difficult part to shape is always the junction between the bowl and the stummel.  A small, half-round rasp is especially helpful here.

Pipe Making Process 2018

The same square-to-octagon process applies to the bottom of the pipe, too.  Aesthetically, the lowest part of the bowl should not be directly under the center of the bowl; rather, it ought to be right under the back of the chamber.  (Take a close look at any well-made pipe in a standard shape, and you’ll see what I mean.)

Pipe Making Process 2018

As you shape the pipe, don’t just rely on your eyes.  Rely on your sense of touch, too.  Each time you remove the pipe from the vise, roll it over in your hands.  Gauge the thickness of the chamber wall all around with your fingers.  You will be able to feel irregularities in thickness even if you can’t see them.

Pipe Making Process 2018

As with the bowl, so with the stummel.  Take off the four corners to make an octagon, but avoid hitting the stem with the rasp.  Rasps dig into vulcanite very aggressively, and rasp marks can be difficult to sand out.  Stop the rasp work just short of the stem.

Pipe Making Process 2018

The result is a faceted pipe.  Some pipes include facets as part of the final design, but all these facets need to be smoothed out.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Use the rasps to remove the corners and refine the shape as well as you can.

Pipe Making Process 2018

At some point, a rounded shape becomes difficult to clamp in any kind of vise.  I use a 3/4″ dowel clamped upright in my handscrew to stabilize the pipe while working the bottom of it.  With care, you can use a small rasp one-handed here.

Pipe Making Process 2018

At some point, you will be close enough to your final shape that you will want to switch from rasps to files.  A couple half-round files the same shape and length as your rasps are best.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Be especially careful around the stem-stummel transition.  You want a tight, even radius, especially at the top.  A chainsaw file is perfect for this operation.  I find myself going back and forth between my small, half-round file and my chainsaw file as I chase the exact shape I’m looking for.

Take your time here, and don’t give up too soon, or the whole pipe will look clumsy.  A well-defined transition between shank and bowl is one of the hallmarks of a workman-like pipe.

As you are refining the shape with files, you will gradually start working into the stem, too.  Continue to shape the wood and the stem as one piece, and check occasionally to ensure that the stem has not gotten pulled out or rotated along the way.  A second-cut file or smoother is best for stem work.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Notice that I am using one more little jig here.  A section of 2X4 with either a notch or a large, shallow hole cut into it works great for stabilizing the end of the stem as you work it with a file (and later with sandpaper).

Pipe Making Process 2018

Use your finest file to refine the shape of the button.  Some like a thick, heavy button; others like a very delicate one.  Whatever your preference, just remember that you’ll have to sand out all your file marks, so it’s best to leave everything slightly over-size.  A little sanding goes a long way on the button.

Pipe Making Process 2018

There are still a lot of little facets that need to be smoothed out, and the stem also needs to be bent.  But it’s starting to look a lot more like a pipe!


Posted in Build-Alongs, Tobacco Pipes, Tutorials, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

How to Make a Tobacco Pipe with Hand Tools, Part 2: Drilling the Briar Block

In my last post, I explained how I prepare a stem to be fitted to a pipe.  In this post, I will show how I drill the holes in the block of wood itself.

This stage of the pipe-making process is the most important in building a pipe that smokes well.  If you screw up the drilling, then no matter how awesome your pipe looks on the outside, it will be less-than-awesome in use.

Briar Blocks

Before we talk about mechanics, we need to talk about materials.  Tobacco pipes are typically made from briar wood.  The briar used for pipes is cut from a burl, which grows on the root systems of a scrub tree native to the Mediterranean region.  The burls are harvested, cut, processed, and cured by professionals.  It’s not the kind of wood you can grow yourself, at least not in the USA.

Briar Blocks

There are several suppliers of good-quality briar blocks in the USA, and the blocks come in many different shapes, sizes, and grades.

I could write a whole blog post about the different kinds of briar blocks you can buy, but the suppliers themselves can tell you all about their products.

I highly recommend the blocks from Vermont Freehand/PIMO.  Mark Tinsky at American Smoking Pipe Co. also has good briar.  If you’re just starting out in pipe making, I suggest buying a few cheap “ebouchon” blocks, though if you are really partial to pipes with the natural top, you can get small “plateaux” blocks instead.  Buy the cheapest grade to begin with.

“But wait,” you say, “who says briar is the only wood you can use for pipes?  Can I use something other than briar?”

It’s a fair question.  The technical answer is yes, there are a few other woods that will make a good pipe.  The bad news is that they are probably not woods you happen to have lying around the shop.  Olive wood, for example, makes a fine pipe.  So does strawberry wood, which comes from a small tree sometimes planted as an ornamental.  You can also use “morta,” or “bog oak,” which is cut from ancient oak logs that have been dug out of European peat bogs.  There are, however, a few domestic hardwoods, such as persimmon and osage orange, that can make a passable pipe.  Cheap wooden pipes are often made of pear wood, or even black cherry.  While these woods will smoke reasonably well at first, they will not last as long as a briar pipe.  If you happen to have any thick, seasoned chunks of such wood lying around, it won’t hurt to use them for practice, but they may impart an odd or unpleasant taste to the tobacco smoke.

That said, there are good reasons that briar is the ideal material for a wooden pipe.  Not only is the grain dense and beautiful, but briar has an unusually high flashpoint, so it won’t catch fire while you smoke.  Briar pipes, if taken care of, can be smoked almost indefinitely without wearing out.

Once you have your briar block in your hand, you can draw your pipe’s outline on one side.  Begin by drawing two lines, the center line of the tobacco chamber, and the center line of the draft hole, which intersect at the bottom of the pipe.  The rest of the pipe will be shaped around these two lines.

Briar Blocks

Your pipe’s shape can be as normal or as bizarre as you like, but for your first pipe, it’s best to begin with a relatively traditional shape, like a billiard, a poker, or a Dublin.  (Yes, pipe shapes have odd names: here’s one chart that lists a few of the many traditional shapes and names.)  Shapes with steep bends or lots of odd angles are fun, but they add a lot of complications to the pipe-making process.  For this tutorial, I’ll be making a modified “author” shape (not pictured above).

Drilling the Block

At the drill press, I set my fence so that the drill bit hits the block more or less in the middle.  I do look at the grain pattern on the briar block and try to plan for the best grain orientation, and on this block, the best grain orientation happened to be a little off-center.

Pipe Making Process 2018

The first hole to be drilled is the mortise for the stem’s tenon.  Using the right size drill bit (1/4″ in this case), I line up the bit with the center line of the draft hole.  Use a square to ensure that you are, in fact, lined up correctly.  Take your time to get everything lined up perfectly, because you’re going to drill several different holes with several different bits with the block in this position.  So clamp the block securely, and don’t move it until I tell you you can!

But before you drill, I should say a word about drill bits.  Not all drill bits labeled the same size actually are the same size!  Drill three holes with three different 1/4″ bits, and a 1/4″ tenon might fit properly in only one of them.  I highly recommend drilling a test mortise in a piece of scrap first.

The depth of the mortise is flexible, but a 1/2″ to 5/8″ is fairly typical.

Now, once you have drilled the mortise, don’t un-clamp the briar block!  You still need to level off the face of the briar so that the stem fits snugly up against the wood with no unsightly gaps.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Use a sharp Forsner bit bigger than the diameter of the stem to kiss the top of the wood.

Keep the block clamped up for the next step, too, which is drilling the draft hole.  Most draft holes are either 5/32″ or 11/64″ in diameter; I’m using the smaller diameter here.  A high-quality brad-point bit works the best for this operation.  Regular split-point bits tend to wander.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Lower the bit to the top of the block, and lock it in place.  Use a ruler or dividers to measure the depth of your draft hole.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Transfer that measurement to your depth stop.  Now you can confidently drill your draft hole to a precise depth.  Briar is dense wood, so go slowly and raise the bit frequently to clear the chips.

Okay, now that the draft hole has been drilled, you may finally unclamp the briar block!

There’s only one hole left, which is the tobacco chamber.  Tobacco chambers come in different widths, but the most common is about 3/4″.  I use a spade bit that has been ground down to produce a round bottom.  You can make one yourself with a bench grinder (grind slowly, quench frequently, and be sure to grind a relief-angle on each side of the cutting edge), or you can buy them ready-ground.

Pipe Making Process 2018

With the bit chucked into the drill press, use your depth-stop to set the final depth of the chamber.  Err on the shallow side.  You can always make the hole deeper if necessary.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Use your square to ensure that the bit is lined up correctly with the center line of the tobacco chamber as you’ve drawn it on the block.

Pipe Making Process 2018

These re-purposed spade bits work okay if you don’t rush the process.  Go slowly and raise the bit frequently to clear the chips.  If you have the block clamped up securely, you should be able to bore a nice, clean hole.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Even with the depth stop, it can be difficult to know if you’ve actually bored deep enough–or too deep!  One trick is to insert a cotton swab into the draft hole.  When the bit hits it, you’ll see it quiver.

Pipe Making Process 2018

And you’ll be able to easily see the cotton at the bottom of the chamber.  Drill down until you have gone all the way through the draft hole, but no farther.

A properly-drilled pipe has a draft hole that intersects with the very bottom of the tobacco chamber.  This is one of the most important features of a pipe that smokes well, so take your time to get this exactly right.

Now, with the briar block drilled, you can trim the stem’s tenon to length.  To do so, insert the tenon into the mortise as far as it will go.  Measure the difference (either with a ruler or with dividers) and use a small saw to trim that much plus about 1/32″ off the end of the tenon.  (The tenon should not quite bottom out in the mortise because, if the wood shrinks, it will open up a gap at the stem/wood junction.  Leaving the tenon short allows for a bit of shrinkage.)  Once you have trimmed the tenon, counter-sink the end of it.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Insert your stem.  Finally, it’s starting to look like a pipe!

In the next post, we will start shaping the pipe.

Posted in Build-Alongs, Tobacco Pipes, Tutorials, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to Make a Tobacco Pipe with Hand Tools, Part 1: The Stem and Tenon

Five years ago, I wrote here about making a tobacco pipe with hand tools.  That post assumed you were starting with a “pipe kit,” i.e. a pre-drilled block of wood with a stem pre-fitted into it.  I still think that is an excellent way to begin learning to make pipes.  But once you’ve decided you want to make more than just a couple pipes, you will want to begin drilling your own blocks–making the pipes yourself start-to-finish.  This post is the first in a series about how to make a pipe from a block of wood and a pre-molded stem.

Pipe #34 Briar Churchwarden Plateaux 2015 - - 08Professional pipe makers not only drill their own briar blocks but also make their own stems from solid rod stock–usually vulcanite (a hard rubber product) or acrylic.  But many hobby-level pipe makers (like me) prefer to use pre-molded stems.  These stems (sometimes called “bits”) can be bought online in many shapes and sizes for a few dollars apiece, and they come pre-drilled with a draft hole and roughly shaped.  I have used stems from a number of suppliers, including Vermont Freehand, American Smoking Pipe Co., and J. H. Lowe.

In order to fit a stem to a pipe, it needs to be modified in two ways:

Most obviously, they need to be refined in shape and texture.  Most vulcanite stems come rough-cast from their molds and require quite a bit of shaping and sanding before they are comfortable to hold and look good.  But first, they need to be fitted with a hollow tenon which will be inserted into the pipe.  There are a couple ways to accomplish this.  You can buy a special tool called a tenon cutter, made just for pipe stems, which fits into a drill press chuck and cuts a tenon on the end of a stem.  Or you can drill a hole into the stem and glue in a pre-drilled tenon, which is what I do.

When I make a pipe, the first step is to insert the tenon into the stem.  Most pre-molded stems come with a tenon-like stub on the tenon-end of the stem.  I saw that off with a small handsaw, then take the stem down to my drill press for drilling.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

I clamp the stem upright on my drill press table.  (Here I’m drilling out a diamond-shaped stem, but the principle is the same with any shape.)  Take the time to ensure that the bit is perfectly aligned dead-center over the stem’s draft hole.  Also double-check that the stem is indeed clamped straight up-and-down by looking at it from several sides.  Also double-check that you are using the right sized drill bit.  Then, with the drill press set on medium-to-high speed, slowly lower the bit into the stem.  Vulcanite is fairly brittle, so go slowly and raise the bit frequently to clear the chips.  You need to drill down no farther than 1/2″.  If your drill press has a depth-stop, use it.  Otherwise, just eyeball it.

And yes, pipe making requires either a drill press or a good lathe.  You can’t do this accurately freehand.  This is a good time to remind you that, if you want to make more than one pipe and aren’t content working with pre-drilled pipe kits, then you have to invest in a workable setup.  Pipe making requires a number of tools and jigs that you either buy or make for yourself.  In other words, if you are going to go to the trouble of making one pipe, you may as well make a dozen.

Once the hole for the tenon is drilled, do not move the stem.  You need to level off the surface of the stem so that it is perfectly perpendicular to the tenon.  Switch to a large, sharp Forsner bit.  The exact size doesn’t matter, as long as the teeth around the edge of the bit clears the outside of the stem.  It just needs to be sharp.

Turn on the drill and, very slowly, lower the bit onto the stem.  Just kiss it with the bit.  (Excess pressure may cause the bit to rip chunks off the top of the stem.)  As soon as the whole face has been leveled off, you’re done.  Now you can unclamp the stem.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

If you don’t have a high-quality drill-press vise–or even if you do have one–it can be difficult to hold a long stem perfectly upright in a drill press.  The contraption shown in these pictures is the best I’ve been able to come up with, and it works fairly well.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

I began with a squared-up block of seasoned hardwood, about 2″X2″X6″.  On the drill press, I drilled a series of holes of different sizes: 3/8″, 1/2″, and 5/8″.  I also drilled a large counter-bore at the top of each hole.  Then I reamed out the top of each hole slightly because most stems taper somewhat.  Finally I sawed it in half down the middle of each hole.

To use it, I clamp the stem in the appropriate-sized hole, and clamp the whole thing to a fence on my drill-press table.  (The fence is nothing but a squared-up 2X4 clamped to my drill press table.)  To get the stem centered directly under the bit, I lightly clamp everything up as near as a quick eyeballing can get me.  Then I tap things here and there until the alignment is perfect, and I tighten the clamps.  It doesn’t take as long as it sounds.

Once the stem is bored and faced, it’s time to glue in the tenons.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

The tenons are made from delrin, a flexible, Teflon-like material.  You can buy rods of delrin in different diameters from industrial suppliers, but because the rods are long, shipping is often prohibitive.  Then you still have to drill out the center of the rod before it can serve as a tenon.  I prefer to buy delrin tenons pre-drilled, often from the same people who supply me with the stems.  The tenons come in several sizes.  I find myself using the 1/4″ diameter size the most, and that’s what you see here.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

Before gluing the tenons into the stems, they need to be modified just a little bit.  I always use a countersink bit to ream out the end of the tenon that will go into the stem.  (In the picture above, the tenon on the right is as it came from the manufacturer; the two tenons on the left have been countersunk.)  This makes it easier for the stem to pass a pipecleaner once assembled.

Now, remember when I said that the tenons were made of a Teflon-like material?  There’s an old joke that asks, “How do they get Teflon to stick to the pan if nothing sticks to Teflon?”  (It’s a true feat of chemical engineering, but don’t let’s get sidetracked.)  Glue won’t stick to these tenons, so you have to use epoxy to lock them in mechanically instead.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

With the corner of a file, cut several notches into the sides of the tenon, on the end you will insert into the stem.  They should be big enough to allow a generous amount of epoxy to flow into them.  Just don’t cut all the way down into the airway.

The epoxy will fill these notches and stick to the stem, thus locking the tenons in place–even though the glue does not actually stick to the tenon.

When applying the epoxy, be very careful not to get any glue on the inside of the tenon.  Be equally careful to ensure that every notch you filed is completely filled with the epoxy.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

You don’t need much epoxy for this operation, but you do need the right kind.  There are many epoxies on the market, mostly distinguished by the time they take to cure.  Here’s an important rule of thumb: the quicker an epoxy cures, the weaker it is.  The strongest epoxies require a full 24 hours to cure, and they are worth the extra time.  I use regular JB-Weld epoxy, which is widely available and extremely strong.

The cure-time is the reason I begin the pipe-making process with the stem.  Typically I drill and glue up several stems at a time, so as to have each one ready when I set out to make a pipe.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

With the epoxy applied to the tenon, insert the tenon into the stem.  Be careful not to drip any glue into the airway of the stem.  Then tap the tenon sharply on the bench top or a block of wood to ensure that it is fully inserted.

Finally, clean off all the excess epoxy immediately.  (This is another advantage of using the slow-curing epoxy; you have ample time to clean off the excess.)  Use a wet paper towel to wipe the excess off the tenon.  And soak a pipe cleaner in water and run it through tenon several times to ensure that no glue has blocked the airway.  You can also check that the airway is clear by blowing through it–and by simply looking through it.

Now set your stems aside to dry for a day while you turn your attention to the wooden part of the pipe.  In the next post, I will show how to drill the holes in a block of briar.



Posted in Build-Alongs, Tobacco Pipes, Tutorials, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Marking Gauges for Sale

I love making tools for myself, and one of my favorite tools to make is a marking gauge.  Now that I have all the marking gauges I need, I have started to make them for other people.  I made the two gauges you see here from black cherry and spalted pecan, both of which were cut right here in Mobile County, Alabama.  If you want one, please e-mail me at  PayPal is the preferred payment, unless you live close enough that you can pick it up in person (in which case, nix the shipping charges).

Scroll all the way to the bottom for the full product description.

Edit: The small gauge is still available.

Marking Gauge: Regular Size, $40.00 +shipping  **SOLD**

Marking Gauge #2 1-2018

Marking Gauge #2 1-2018

Marking Gauge #2 1-2018

Marking Gauge #2 1-2018

Overall dimensions: the arm is 7″ long and about 5/8″ square.  The fence is 2 1/2″ wide (at the widest point), 2 1/2″ tall, and 1 1/4″ thick.


Marking Gauge: Small, $40.00 +shipping

Marking Gauge #1 Small 1-2018

Marking Gauge #1 Small 1-2018

Marking Gauge #1 Small 1-2018

Marking Gauge #1 Small 1-2018

Overall dimensions: the arm is 6″ long and about 9/16″ square.  The fence is 2 3/8″ wide (at the widest point), 2 1/8″ tall, and 1 1/4″ thick.

Product Details

Each gauge is made from black cherry, and the fence is faced with spalted pecan.  The bell-shaped profile of the fence gives you a convenient place to rest your index finger and thumb.  The profile also offers a wider bearing surface than most other gauges without making the fence too big to wrap your hand around.

The arm locks securely with a sliding dowel mechanism, which is operated with one hand.  Press the button on one side firmly and the arm locks; press the other one and it unlocks. (Tap the button on the bench for extra locking power; tap the other end to release.)  There is no side-to-side play in the arm.  At first, the arm will require some pressure to slide in and out, but this will become easier with repeated use.

The pin is made from hardened steel and sharpened to a rounded spear-point, so it cuts in either direction.  While a pin-style gauge works best with the grain, this gauge will also mark across the grain if used with light pressure.  As you resharpen the pin, you can tap it down from the top.

Finish is only paste-wax rubbed out to a light sheen.

Posted in For Sale, Marking Gauge, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment