May 252016

blog1I found a bench plane at a local antique store that caused visions depicting craftsmen effortlessly shaving paper thin curls with every stroke. In the real world, my experience with hand planes is limited to using a small block plane to make things worse. In my hands, a plane skitters, and chatters, tends to grab grain and rip out chunks of wood. But my father taught me that every fellow needs a plane to “shave a little off” – make things fit – like doors, and lids, and chair legs – just stuff that needs a bit of fitting. So I keep a small block plane, a gift from him, and I have learned to find creative ways of avoiding it.

The Stanley No.4 I found for 40 dollars was old and battered with scars on the loose wooden handles and a fine patina on the exposed metal. I bought it. Whatever. It can always sit on the shelf next to the chisels I use to sharpen pencils, a nod to skilled craftsmen across the decades and a tribute to the woodworking arts residing beyond my grasp.

I am sharing my experience because it was a process that left me facing in a different direction than expected, seeing my tools, my time, and my labors from a different perspective. I learned techniques, but I also learned what I can only describe as truths. I find truths to be the landmarks that guide our choices and ultimately our satisfaction. They are what we use to build techniques.

Truth Number 1: Tools ready to be sold are not always ready to be used and there is a huge difference between the two

Watching video after video of “how to set up your plane,” I learned about using sandpaper on a flat surface to true the sole, how to adjust the frog and lever cap, and how to position the chip breaker. I cut a pattern of thin stock to take the wobble out of the tote. These are techniques and as I applied them I found my attention drawn to the machining marks on the surface of my scroll saw. Would it be easier to use if the surface was slick and waxed? Could I more accurately cut along the line if there was less friction from the table? Yep! Tried it – proved it – truth. I ‘m still amazed by how much a little work to true and dress a tool can improve the way it works and compound your possibilities.

Truth Number 2: Knife-sharp won’t do it

All the googalizing to set up the plane led to sharpening the iron and I quickly discovered there are as many ways to sharpen a plane iron as there are people who claim to be experts on it. There are many techniques. The truth here lies in what we consider sharp and that a sharp tool makes the whole difference in how we use it and what we consider limitations.

I’ve always taken pride in my ability to put an edge on a knife. My father taught me. Few things bring a smile like the look on a friends face when I pass them my knife to use. They go, “Wow! This is sharp!” I shrug it off with “Meh…. it’ll do”. The truth I learned, is that “wow sharp” is not quite optimal for wood working. I learned that sharp for wood working lies way past dry shaving hair on your arm – it’s out there where you move slowly, carefully…. partly to preserve the edge and partly because it’s downright dangerous if you get sloppy. I think of it as scary sharp, and it completely changes how you use edged tools and the things you value most in your tool box.

Truth Number 3: Hand tool time warp

I’m a product of the machine age, I respect them as leverage to multiply our efficiencies. Machines are good and while I have deep respect for hand tools and the craftsmen who master them, I won’t hide my preference for a thickness planer over a bench plane for thinning stock. Much of my life has been consumed with finding a better, more efficient, more accurate way to do things – the technique, layout, order of operation – sometimes the tool. The truth I found nestled between hand tools and power tools is the measure of time. What does it really mean to feel “this is taking too long, there’s gotta be a better way…” Most of my mistakes happen in that seam where my mind is trying to find a faster solution.

The truth is that it is not impatience, it is not that hand tools are slower – they simply require me to embrace a different measure of time. Think of the time to crosscut four-quarter maple with a hand saw compared to a powered miter saw. How about the time to correct if you cut too long or not quite square? “Measure twice, cut once” has a different meaning in “hand tool time” because it takes so much more effort to correct mistakes with hand tools. I find my sketching and planning is much more thorough, I’m much more precise with my square, and I keep my tools much sharper because correcting mistakes has a different meaning on this different time scale. I’m even more careful with the wood, where and how I set pieces aside because it’s not just wood, it’s an investment of my best work, my steadiest strokes. The payoff is my patience and attention span is on the slower scale as well as my sense of accomplishment.

Truth Number 4: Simple satisfaction

I’ve always enjoyed making – building things. I find joy in the sense of accomplishment – the evolutionary nature of “why don’t I just make one” is a big deal to me. This plane and the journey it started has shifted that a bit. With the slower time scale of hand tools, I’ve discovered simple satisfaction in the “doing” instead of the completing. I actually find pleasure in a scary sharp chisel. I mean, building things is great, but now the process is filled with thousands of tiny moments of tools doing exactly what I want. Maybe I’m a simpleton, but I really appreciate the way a well trued and sharp tool works and the building thing, the objective goal, has become the bonus at the end of the process. A pass of the plane will make me smile, and the next one will again, and the next.

blog2This antique store bargain dates to the 1930’s, the internet dating thingy calls it a type 15 and the sweetheart logo on the iron agrees. All that combines to make the plane an interesting conversation piece, a trophy of sorts, but to me there’s a different meaning. Its age is representative of the craftsman who held it, used it. The iron is ground in a way to draw up the corners of the bevel, just slightly, like a shallow smile. This grind is intentional, not to gouge, but to smooth, to prevent the edges of the iron from leaving tracks in the wood and convinces me that over several generations, someone used this tool for more than shaving a little off to make it fit.

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May 192016

I’ve always loved those man-on-the street interviews in the newspaper where they ask what’s your favorite meal? and what’s your favorite movie? kind of questions. I thought I would do one of those for this blog. The first concern was who to interview, and so for convenience sake, I decided to interview me. Reduces the burden of social interaction, don’t cha know. Plus they always asked those inane questions. So here goes — HW is Highland, and WW is Woodworker (me):


HW: Thank you for doing this. I know you don’t grant many interviews.

WW: Glad to do it. It makes it easier when you interview yourself and know what the questions are going to be. That way there are no surprises.

HW: So tell me about your shop.

WW: I built a new building about 8 years ago — 20 feet by 40 feet with a front porch, and moved all my tools from the basement. I really disliked always having to clean off the bench or saw to do the next task. My goal was to be able to use every tool without having to clean it off first.IMG_2202

HW: Did it work?

WW: You know it didn’t. Nobody can build a shop that big.

HW: What kind of stuff do you build?

WW: Well, duh — wood stuff. This is a woodworking blog. I like Shaker stuff the best. Traditional things that endure and will look good many years from now. Clever things are not much for me. You will never see me glue up a bunch of little blocks to turn a bowl for a checker pattern in the finished piece. That is just too clever. I like Shaker, small tables, bowls, and chairs. Lately I have gotten into Chris Schwarz’s “Campaign Furniture”.

Roorkee Chair from "Campaign Furniture".

Roorkee Chair from “Campaign Furniture”.

HW: Our son laughs about the roll top desk.

WW: He would. I’ve known him since he was very young and all three of us share the same sense of humor. The roll top desk is sitting around about 80% complete for the last 20 years or so and he is always asking when I intend to finish it. Well, I intend to finish it every day, but it never happens. It is the old saw about perfect getting in the way of done. My reach exceeds my grasp and the desk is not up to par and I can’t bear to throw it away.

HW: What about all the tools? Father’s Day must be a problem for him since you seem to have all the tools that cost less than $300.

WW: That is true – I do enjoy having all the tools. Goes back to my childhood when my Dad had to borrow tools. The worst is when you buy a new tool and then find the same tool in the shop never taken out of the box. I hate that.

HW: What is your favorite tool?

Block Plane

Block Plane

WW: Little block plane. To me one of the real joys of wood working is a tiny finishing touch like breaking an edge with the block plane. I fantasize about somebody finding an edge on one of my pieces fifty years hence and recognizing the little facets where I took the time to plane it instead of sanding it .

HW: What is the worst thing about your hobby?

WW. Does anybody like sanding? I despise it.

HW: New skills lately?


Stool from “Campaign Furniture”.

WW: In the broad arc of wood working, I guess it would be chair making. The idea of making each piece of a chair to fit the previous work was a revelation to this engineer who spent his life drawing plans where you make each piece from the plans and then fit them all together at the end. Plus shaping a piece of wood freehand with a drawknife or a spokeshave was terribly liberating. I credit Mike Dunbar for that eye-opener. Lately, it has been leather work from Campaign Furniture which has been fun and different.

HW: What’s next?

WW: I always have a list of future projects. There is a plan for Jefferson’s Lap Desk floating around. I have had a set of boat plans for 30 years which will likely never get done. There’s a writing desk and a chair to be finished.

HW: Thanks for your thoughts.

WW: I enjoyed talking to you. We seem to enjoy many of the same things.

HW: Can I buy you lunch?

WW: Trying to figure how we can go together.

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May 132016
A Solution to the Run Away Planer

After 70+ years of joyful working with wood, I thought I had seen most everything, but several weeks ago, something new happened. I had just moved my entire shop to a new location. The move took over a month, and when I arranged everything again, I naturally was very excited to be back into making sawdust. During the […]

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May 092016
Tormek T-­7 Tip for Using the Leather Honing Wheel

Repetition and practice are often all that are needed to bring about an improved outcome with just about any task. This includes pushing a lawnmower (my kids get better at it with each passing summer), swinging a golf club or tennis racquet, or paring & sawing right to your marked line. Practice and experience, along with a little sheer […]

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May 032016
POLL: Do you ever get into the Zen of hand sanding?

In this month’s Tips column we talk about a project made from some really old pine. How old? At least 100 years. One problem that arose was swirls in the wood after sanding. Dust extractor suction turned down? Check! Not pressing down on the sander? Check! Email to Steven Johnson, The Down to Earth Woodworker, for […]

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May 022016
Tips from Sticks in the Mud – May 2016 Tip #2 - Reusing Sanding Disks

No Southern-fried Southern boy wants to be called a Yankee, but we share the characteristics of shrewdness and thrift. Thus, each month we include a money-saving tip. It’s OK if you call me “cheap.” When I first got my Festool Sander, an ETS 125, followed several months later by a 5″ Rotex RO 125 FEQ, […]

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May 012016
Tips from Sticks in the Mud – May 2016 – Tip #1- Counting Sanding Passes

Welcome to “Tips From Sticks-In-The-Mud Woodshop.” I am a hobbyist, not a professional, someone who loves woodworking, just like you do. I have found some better ways to accomplish tasks in the workshop and look forward to sharing those with you each month, as well as hearing your problem-solving ideas. The building in which our […]

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