Steven D. Johnson

Jan 022015

Welcome to our 2015 Woodworking Resolutions blogger series. Every year we invite our bloggers to share their resolutions specific to their woodworking goals for the new year. Click each link below to read our bloggers resolutions!

Steve Johnson

Like about 99.9% of people, my New Year’s resolution list includes the usual casually made, easily ignored, and quickly forgotten promises… lose weight, exercise more, be nicer to my wife (well, maybe I’ll work on that one). But I added one to the list that I am determined not to forget or ignore.

In 2015 I want to find ways to reach more beginners and potential new woodworkers. It has become, in fact, what you might call a “grand obsession.” And there are several good reasons for it.

Woodworking attracts good people. Or perhaps woodworking makes people good. Either way, we need more good people. In everyday walking around life, a significant percentage of people are just real jerks. But, I’ve met thousands of woodworkers and only a couple fit that less-than-pleasant description.

Woodworkers speak the same language worldwide. We use similar tools, we use the same joinery, and we enjoy the craft and work hard to get better. I’m convinced that people who speak the same language, share a common bond so to speak, are much more likely to get along. The world could use a little more “getting along.”

More woodworkers translate to more of everything (except maybe wood!). More woodworkers lead to more innovation, more tools, more magazine subscriptions, more newsletters, videos, and classes. Sometimes I feel like I’m on overload already, but bring it on. I would rather be inundated than starving for my daily woodworking fix.

As a woodworker, my skills are probably slap in the middle of a big range, from beginner to master (closer to the bottom quartile, I often think). But I do like to share my knowledge and experience. There is not much, if anything, I could teach the great ones, but I could impart some tips, tricks, wisdom, and experience to newbies.

Probably due to the inordinate amount of time we spend doing mind-numbing things, like sanding, woodworkers are deep thinkers. We ponder and we analyze. Less tweeting and texting and more thinking would also likely make the world a better place.

Whether you consciously try or not, we woodworkers are pretty good stewards of the environment. Frugality seems to be a common trait, and there is never (almost never) a scrap of wood haphazardly tossed away. We fret over what to do with our woodchips and sawdust, we cry when a finish hardens in a can. We save nuts and bolts like they are family heirlooms, and we find creative ways to use stuff other people cast aside.

And, perhaps most importantly, woodworkers are generous with their time, talents, tools, projects, tips, techniques, and of course, opinions. If you think opinionated sounds negative it is not at all… because we also say, “bring it on”… we woodworkers love to have a healthy debate.

More new woodworkers… that’s my sincere resolution for 2015 and beyond. I think I’ll go text my wife and tell her how great she is… right after I eat that last cinnamon bun and take a nap.

Steven Johnson is retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life).

Steven can be reached directly via email at

Click below for more bloggers 2015 Woodworking Resolutions:

Nov 212014

Your hobby or vocation is woodworking.  You love it.  You think about it all the time.  Woodworking is almost your “grand obsession.”  You read the Highland Woodworking catalog on the subway, train, or in your car (only at stop lights, please!).  You watch YouTube videos about woodworking at lunch.  You are in your shop every spare minute.  You live, eat, and breathe woodworking.  And you know what gifts people are going to give you over the holidays?  Socks.  A tie.  A gift card to a coffee shop.  A pair of pajamas or a new sweater.  Bah.  Humbug.

Oh, you will, of course, be polite; you’ll ooh and ah, express your gratitude; and as soon as the gift wrap remnants are swept away, you will be back in your shop or deep into your favorite magazine reading… about woodworking.

It may be politically incorrect, but I suggest putting your altruism aside and consider making yourself a gift this year.  Who deserves it more?  Get what you really want!  Maybe a new workbench?  How about a new rack for all your clamps?  Have you been selflessly building projects for others when what you really need is a new router table?  Then damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead… make something for yourself… something for your shop!

Tidy Whities Square
Figure 1 – Tidy Whities? Bah, Humbug! Figure 2 – Now that’s a gift that keeps on giving!

Or perhaps buy something for yourself.  Sound selfish?  Well, it shouldn’t.  Gift wrap it for the full effect.  Try to act surprised when you open it.  Try this… when the spouse and kiddies are away, grab the department store gift box (it is pretty obvious which one) and remove the giftwrap like a surgeon.  Be careful not to tear the paper.  Take the shirt, socks, underwear, or whatever out, toss it or return it, then place that new Woodpeckers Square in the box, re-wrap it, and put it back under the tree.  When you open the gift everyone will be amazed… there really is a magical Santa Claus or philosopher’s stone capable of transforming plaid socks into cool tools!

If you are tempted to feel guilty for what some might consider selfish acts, don’t despair.  The human mind can rationalize almost anything.  A “selfie” gift is actually generous, since you are saving others the torment of trying to figure out what you really want.  Plus, who wants a grumpy woodworker around with piles of useless tchotchkes?  Better you go off to the woodshop to play with your new toys, grinning like a guiltless child.

Steven Johnson is retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life).

Steven can be reached directly via email at

Oct 082014

A “backstory” is a literary device used to lend depth and color to the main story. Characters often have history that impacts their present decisions and actions, and that history often is revealed as a ‘backstory” that helps us understand the character’s current motivations and psyche. The backstory enriches and enlightens and makes the main story line more compelling.

Like an author creates a character, a woodworker creates a “thing,” and that “thing” likely has an interesting “backstory.” The backstory of your work can make what you make more compelling and more valuable.

As we move from outside to in, as summer changes to fall, many of us are already planning the holiday gifts we will make for others. An interesting backstory may well turn out to be as highly valued as the object itself. Imagine your woodworking gift accompanied by an interesting backstory… the history of the piece, from idea to plan to wood to finished product. The story of your woodworking efforts will be appreciated… indeed, perhaps even cherished. And how you tell the backstory will make a big difference.

Photos are an obvious choice for creating the backstory behind your project, but you will need words, too. PowerPoint and Keynote are two great programs that allow you to combine pictures and words easily. There are also a number of free photo-management programs that include the ability to produce photo albums with labels and descriptions. You could simply “paste” photos into a word processing program for an effect almost as nice.

The backstory behind the creation of a woodworking project is an historical timeline, so start with the wood, the idea, or the plan. Was there something special about the wood, how it was acquired, or where? Did something about the recipient trigger the idea for the gift? Did you design the piece with the recipient in mind, and what was the motivation? From there, simply follow the timeline and show snippets of the project that might be interesting to a non-woodworker.

Did you use a special hard-to-make joint? Did the project require extensive handwork? Or was a special jig made to accomplish the machine work? Did you apply a special finish? In all likelihood, the little things you do everyday will be very intriguing to a non-woodworker and will help them appreciate the thought, effort, experience, and expertise that went into your gift.

With a little planning, the backstory of your woodworking project can be easily compiled. If you take pictures and keep notes throughout the project, chances are you can put the backstory into a pretty binder and finish it up about the same time you are rubbing out that last coat of shellac. Present the two items, your woodworking project and its backstory, together, and wait for the smiles.

Figure 1 - The "backstory" booklet cover

Figure 1 – The “backstory” booklet cover

Not too long ago I had a chance to visit a friend I haven’t seen in almost five years. I had made and given him a small piece of furniture and shortly thereafter he was transferred to another city. Today, five years later, that small piece of furniture is still prominent in his living room, as is the “backstory” of the project I gave him at the same time. He told me that he has never had a guest in his house that wasn’t fascinated by the booklet describing the process, from wood to finished piece.

This year, consider making a “backstory” to accompany the woodworking gifts you give. We would love to see them, too. Send us an electronic version of your backstory and we will share the best with the rest of the woodworking community right here in the Highland Woodworking Blog!

Steven Johnson is retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life).

Steven can be reached directly via email at

Oct 032014

It’s likely on your checklist right alongside tuning up the snow blower, draining the gas from the lawnmower, and getting the winter togs out of the closet. And if stocking up on wood is not on your list, it should be.

Fall is a great time to buy lumber for all your upcoming wintertime projects. It is clearly a more pleasant time of year to haul wood, plus any wood you buy now will have time to acclimate to your shop. Right now there may be another very good reason to “stock up.”

Erasmus said, “When I have a little money I buy books… and if I have any left I buy food and clothes.” Substitute “wood” for “books” and this describes me exactly. Last week I made the first of what will be several trips to my supplier to stock up for winter. On the long drive, I tuned in to an all news station and listened, again, to rosy reports on the economy, a surging stock market, still-lower unemployment numbers, and no inflation. I was emotionally uplifted by the time I arrived, but my delusions were summarily dashed when I realized that lumber prices had shot up since my last visit.

Knowing a bit about supply and demand, and processing the bits of “news” I heard on my drive, I surmised that lumber prices were up due to high demand. “You’re kidding, right?” was the reaction from my trusted wood source. He explained…

lumberfutures“The economy is so bad. No one is building houses around here so there is no demand for high-grade hardwoods for cabinets, fireplace mantels, trim, or anything else. As a result, the price people are paying for timber is so low that everyone has quit selling their trees. No timber, no lumber, and that translates to shortages. Short supply means rising prices.”

Okay, the rules of supply and demand are safe, but the premise under which I was operating was all wrong. There is a shortage of lumber, but not because the demand is high; it is because people who own stands of timber are holding off selling their trees until prices go up… at least around here.

One thing I learned from moving around the country is that all lumber pricing, like all politics, is local. Where you live the economy may be better, and perhaps a surge in construction is driving hardwood lumber prices higher. Whatever the reasons, the consensus (and futures contracts) agree, lumber prices are going up. As we all get ready for a winter of shop time and furniture building, now might be a good time to stock up on the one thing we all need for woodworking… more wood!

Steven Johnson is retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life).

Steven can be reached directly via email at

May 122014

If you want to get a “vigorous” conversation going in woodworking, it seems you only need bring up SawStop or dust collection.

It is true that in my reading and research I can find no instance whatsoever of a static spark in a small shop dust collection system causing a fire or explosion. Therefore some folks are adamant that static dissipation is unnecessary. Large shops and other “dust-producing” industries, such as milling flour, grain, etc., are a different game completely, and there have been some devastating (documented) accidents caused by static electricity.

Then there is the group that (I think) live in humid warm locales and since they have never been shocked or had their hair stand on end from the static in their dust collection system, project their micro-environmental situation onto all others and assume static electricity is a hoax or myth.

There is a group that knows static is a real issue (they have been zapped, seen dust clinging to the outside of their pipes, or felt the tingle as they walked by their ductwork) and for comfort and/or safety reasons feel that providing a static dissipation system is just “good insurance.” I fall into this camp, by the way. For the $30 or $40 cost, why not?

You can add to that a group of folks who have suffered damage to sensitive electronics (smart phones, cameras, iPads, etc.) by static. They, too, are comfortable with the “better safe than sorry” approach. Then, on a serious note, there are the folks with pacemakers who will not get within 50 feet of an ungrounded dust collection system.

As one level-headed commenter on my YouTube channel posted, “Whether or not to ground your system comes down to personal choice.” If you do choose to ground your system, here are two frequently asked questions and answers about that.

PVC is a non-conductive material, so how can you ground PVC?

You cannot… it is merely “verbal shorthand” to say something like “grounding the PVC.” Technically, we are providing a conductive path to ground for excess electrons that accumulate as a result of wood chips and sawdust repeatedly contacting the walls of the ductwork. Think of it this way: Buildings are not conductive, but we install lightning rods to provide a path to ground. We are, in a sort of imprecise verbal shorthand, “grounding the building.”

I have heard it is a good idea to run the ground wire inside the pipe. Is this true?

A conductive path should be provided for excess electrons both inside and outside the pipe. The system I describe in my recent Popular Woodworking webinar, “Dust Collection Ductwork” accomplishes this without the struggle of trying to install a wire inside the pipe. Anything inside the pipe adds airflow resistance and creates the potential for a clog.

CLICK HERE to read Steve Johnson’s full Dust Collection System FAQ.

Oct 022013

In the Down to Earth Woodworker’s most recent October 2013 Wood News column, he discussed the Dado Depth Torture Test, and in this follow-up blog entry, he has the results of his testing.

The Down To Earth Woodworker responds to a reader’s question, “Why do you make your dados 1/4” deep in 3/4” plywood?”

Pursuant to a reader’s question, I tested three dado depths (1/4”, 3/8” and 1/2”) in 3/4” plywood to see what depth provided the strongest joint in each of three potential force directions.

dado test results (blog)

The test demonstrated that to some extent, it is all about the plywood.  So-called “furniture grade” plywood with few plies and many internal defects can fail in spectacular ways.  I suspect that the same tests in Baltic Birch or some other fine grade of multi-ply plywood might have turned out differently.  But “furniture grade” is the type of plywood most of us use for shop cabinets, kitchen cabinets, and bookshelves.

In the shear test, both the 3/8” and 1/2” depth dadoes failed as a result of a split in the plywood between the plies, starting at the dado wall.  The deeper dado weakened the plywood and the downward pressure on the test piece provided the leverage to split the plywood.  The 1/4” depth dado was the strongest.

In the tear test, the 3/8” dado was the strongest, with the 1/4” deep dado coming in a fairly close second.  I suspect that in this test the deeper dado helped… to a point.  As the dado got deeper, there was more gluing surface on the sidewalls of the dado.  But at 1/2”, the dado was simply too deep and the plywood surrounding the dado was weakened to the point that it overcame any advantage provided by the additional sidewall gluing surface.

In the pull test, as the dados got deeper the joint became weaker because there was not enough plywood behind the joint to hold it rigid.  The flexing in the weakened plywood allowed the sidewalls of the dado to give way, and the rest was, as they say, history.  Again, the 1/4” deep dado was the strongest.

Check out the video  below for more details!


Aug 292013

The only context in which there are “good” vibrations may be in the Beach Boys’ song. For woodworkers, and in fact, tool users of any kind, there are only “bad” vibrations. Tool vibration can cause discomfort and potential long-term damage (look up Raynaud’s Phenomenon for more information). The human hand and arm is most sensitive to vibration in the 6 to 16 Hz frequency range, and workplace safety guidelines have been established as a function of vibration intensity, frequency and exposure time.

Tool vibration can be, and often is, used as a predictor of machine failure and in preventive maintenance. An example would be to measure a perfectly balanced and smooth running machine bearing on a regular basis, noting the change in vibration over time and using that measurement to predict when bearing failure will occur so as to replace the part ahead of time.

Vibration can be a source of noise, another work place exposure consideration, and the two measurements are often taken together.

Perhaps most importantly for woodworkers, vibration can be a good comparative data source to help us make well-informed purchasing decisions. The simple fact is, for any two similar pieces of equipment, the one with less vibration will usually be the heavier, better-built, smoother running, and more accurate machine.

Vibration measurement is a science well beyond the scope of this article and, frankly, my expertise. But used as a comparative tool, it can actually be fairly simple. Vibration is a measurement of distance, speed, and force of movement on three axes. In any one given axis, imagine vibration in this manner:

With your hand up in front of your face, move your hand quickly to the right. We will refer to that as positive movement, and the speed with which you move your hand is one measurement and how far you move your hand is another. Then stop moving your hand, reverse direction, and move it back to the left. In this example, that would be the negative movement, and again the speed and distance of movement would be measured. Those movements could be plotted on a graph, with the positive movement above the central line and the negative movement below the line.

Now imagine that the movements are plotted for motion in all three axes, left-to-right, up and down, and forward and back. The measurements of these motions would be an aggregate measure of vibration and would be plotted as amplitude waves, much like the waves on an oscilloscope.

The combination of all that data is usually expressed as the “root mean square velocity amplitude” or “RMS.” This is a bit of over-simplification, but for machine comparative purposes, it is really all we need to know. We know that sound pressure effects change as the frequency changes, but we are content with understanding the difference between a machine that produces 65 dB of sound and one that produces 75 dB of sound. Likewise, vibration energy changes at different frequencies, as does our response to that vibration energy, but for our purposes, it is sufficient to know that a machine producing 0.45 RMS is vibrating with significantly less force and intensity than one producing an RMS of 1.12 and that a machine producing 7.1 RMS would be considered “unacceptable” by ISO standards.

In the real world, day-to-day woodworking world, vibration measurements provided by manufacturers would give us a clear comparative between similar machines. Accessory manufacturers, such as saw blade makers, could provide us with RMS data for their blades on a specific machine type, compared to competitive blades on the same machine. Manufacturers could provide RMS data as a baseline, so that we could monitor our machine’s health and take corrective preventive maintenance steps before damage occurred to the machine. For hand-held equipment, such as sanders, saws, drills, etc., the RMS reading would allow us to gauge long-term operator comfort. I suspect if Festool made the RMS data available for their hand-held sanders, and other manufacturers did the same for their sanders, there would be little more, if any, conversation about the so-called “pricey” Festool equipment. The value and build-quality differential would be clear and unequivocal.

nickel test

Table saw manufacturers have long “wowed” us with the “nickel test.” A nickel standing on edge on a running table saw is just a way to demonstrate low vibration. Now who will be the first manufacturer to proudly (and bravely) list RMS in their machine specifications?