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

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

Night Market Table Fall 2016

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

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

BE THERE

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

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

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

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

TALKING TO PEOPLE 

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

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

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

Here’s how mine goes:

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

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

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

Spalted Pecan Spoons and Spatulas 12-2016

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

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

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

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

DO I NEED TO…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BUILD RELATIONSHIPS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

N at the Craft Table 5 Rivers 2018

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

SCOPE IT OUT

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

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

DESIGN YOUR DISPLAY

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

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

Holiday Market Craft Table 2018

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

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

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

Holiday Market Craft Table 2018

 

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

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

IMG_7200 (1)

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

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

MONEY

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

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

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

EXTRAS

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

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

IMG_8907

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

IT’S ALL WORTH IT

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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Book Review: Cræft by Alexander Langlands

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

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

Langlands Craeft Book 2019

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

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

Langlands Craeft Book 2019

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

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

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Build A Simple, Wooden Storage Crate in an Hour

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

Step 1: Rip Your Slats

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

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

Wooden Storage Crate 1-2019

Step 2: Build the Ends

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

Wooden Storage Crate 1-2019

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

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

Wooden Storage Crate 1-2019

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

Step 3: Add the Sides and Bottom

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

Wooden Storage Crate 1-2019

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

Wooden Storage Crate 1-2019

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

Wooden Storage Crate 1-2019

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

Wooden Storage Crate 1-2019

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

Wooden Storage Crate 1-2019

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

Wooden Storage Crate 1-2019

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

Step 4: Fill It Up.

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

Wooden Storage Crate 1-2019

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

Wooden Storage Crate 1-2019

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

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

 

 

 

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The Hardest Part of Learning to Sharpen

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The One Essential Hand Tool

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

It’s my pocketknife.

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

Pocket Knives 2018

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

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

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

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

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

SWAT Pocket Knife

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

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

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

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

Pocket Knife Benchmade Valet 2018

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

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

 

 

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Rebuilding Trunnions on a 14″ Steel City Band Saw

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

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

Bandsaw Broken Trunnion 2018

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

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

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

Bandsaw Trunnion Repair 2018

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

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

Bandsaw Trunnion Repair 2018

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

Bandsaw Trunnion Repair 2018

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

Bandsaw Trunnion Repair 2018

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

Bandsaw Trunnion Repair 2018

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

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

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

Bandsaw Trunnion Repair 2018

So now the saw is usable again.

Posted in Wood and Woodwork | 26 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kid Rocking Chair Repair 11-2013 - - 5

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

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

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

A Carving 11-2013 - 08

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

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

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

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

R Makes Wooden Train Engine 9-2018

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

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

I mean it:  Walk.  Away.

Fairy Furniture for K 9-2018

 

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

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

N Tool Chest 2016

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

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

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

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

It is good to make an object.

 

A M R Sand Spoons 2018

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

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

N Spoon Carving 2016

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

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

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

Help with Sawing 1-2013

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

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

 

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The Parable of the Homemade Wine

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

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

Homemade Wine 2018

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

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

The Interpretation of the Parable

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

Homemade Wine 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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