Steven D. Johnson

Jan 042011

This month in the January Wood News I wrote about a few of “My Favorite Things” in the Down to Earth Workshop.

Some of these things are not necessarily the things you might imagine – my band saw and my No. 4 smoothing plane are critical components to the shop, but my electric cup warmer and my old wooden stool are main stays as well, and I use them every day to keep my ever-present coffee hot and my posterior dutifully accommodated.

So what are your favorite things? No rules, but let’s see how many non-traditional woodworking things show up…things you would not normally find in a woodworking store. Leave a list of your favorite things in the comments, and let’s compare!

Dec 032010

Ever since I overheard my Dad say he was going to cut down the old Magnolia tree by our house, I was excited as only a small boy can be. The thought of my father swinging his giant double blade axe, chips flying, and that giant tree crashing to the ground while I yelled “timber” at the top of my lungs, filled my daydreams.

Saturday finally came, and my Dad led me to the tool shed where he put a new sharp edge on both sides of the axe. Then we walked out to the tree, but rather than starting to chop, he sat with his back to the trunk in the long morning shade and patted the ground next to him and said “Sit.”

“When are you going to cut it down, Dad?”

“Oh, maybe in a little bit. You know, I’ve seen you climbing this old tree before. Aren’t you going to miss it?”

“There’s lots of other trees I can climb.”

“Yeah… but none just like this one. You know, son, I’ll bet this old tree is close to a hundred years old.”

“You think so, Dad?”

“I suspect so. You know, if it’s a hundred years old, it was here during the Civil War. It was here at the turn of the century. It would have been here before your Granddaddy was born.” He paused to let that information sink in then continued, “You know, if we left it alone it might live another hundred years.”

Even at six years old, I was starting to have second thoughts. “You think we should leave it?”

“Well, son, you know its roots have been growing into our sewer line. I’ve been paying a plumber to come out here every six months or so to clean out the pipe. I can’t afford it anymore. It’s kind of come down to me or the tree.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“But, I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. Much as I hate to cut it down, we won’t let any of it go to waste. We’ll cut some nice lumber out of it, maybe make something pretty for your Mom. We’ll use some of it for firewood, too. But I’m not sure that’s enough.”

“What do you mean, Dad?”

“It just seems to me that if we cut this tree down, we ought to plant another tree someplace to replace it.”

“Hey, that seems like a great idea!”

“You think so? Then that’s what we will do. This old tree will be sacrificed, but we’ll put it to good use, and we’ll plant another tree to make up for it.”

It was quiet for a few minutes. I guess we were both lost in thought, but I remember asking, “So how old do you really think it is?”

For two hours, we talked. He explained how we would soon know exactly how old the tree was, by counting the growth rings. We talked about the Civil War, the invention of the cotton gin, penicillin, the Great Depression, and more. My Dad spun stories about cowboys tying their horses to the tree and young boys carving their initials in its bark. He wondered whether or not he might cut into an old fence wire that was nailed to the tree in some distant farm past, and whether or not the wood would smell as sweet as the Magnolia blossoms.

Finally, my Dad said, “Son, I think it’s time. You still think we should cut it down?”

Hesitantly I said, “Daddy, we can’t afford the plumber, remember?”

True to his word, a couple of weeks later my father came home from work with not just one, but a dozen, sapling trees in the back of his truck. We dug holes, planted, and watered the trees. I climbed other trees, had other exciting adventures, and forgot all about the big Magnolia. But a few years ago, I had a chance to go back to my childhood house. Those trees we planted are fifty years old now, and probably as big as the big Magnolia was in its day. Those trees are beautiful, the blossoms are sweet, and I’m sure some young boy has climbed them all.

It was, it turns out, my father’s trademark… and his legacy. Not just to leave every place a little better than he found it, but also to leave a young boy with a lasting memory and a lifetime appreciation for history, nature, trees, wood, and the things we make from wood… to sometimes take what we need, but to always give back, with interest… to slow down sometimes… to talk, to listen, and to think. I hope, that among many other things, you were thankful this Thanksgiving for whatever, or whoever, got you started in woodworking. I know I was. Thanks Dad!

This story is excerpted from The Down to Earth Woodworking column, published monthly in Wood News. Click here to read this month’s entire column.

Nov 232010

With the long weekend coming up, we thought it might be a good idea to reprint this section of The Down to Earth Woodworker – might be a good excuse to spend a little time in your shop, even with all the family visiting! And who knows, maybe while you are taking inventory, you’ll discover all the tools you still need, and can add them to your wishlist just in time for holiday shopping!

Time to Take a Workshop Inventory

Killjoy, buzz-kill, party-pooper? Me? Never! But I am a pragmatist. We all need to occasionally contemplate the unthinkable, if for no other reason to be prepared. “What would happen if my shop burned to the ground, was burglarized, or flooded?”

Put that chilling thought aside and conduct this simple experiment now. Go into your shop, pick one cabinet or drawer, and without opening it, make a list of everything in it. Try to remember everything. Done? Now compare the list to what is actually in the cabinet or drawer. How close did you get? Did you miss anything?

In the event of a catastrophic loss, would you be able to list everything in your shop for insurance purposes? I know I couldn’t. I tried the experiment above and missed almost half the stuff in one drawer!

Most homeowner’s insurance policies provide for replacement of articles at “actual cash value” (ACV) or “replacement cost.” But if you are unable to identify all items and provide substantiation for the value of each, you may not be reimbursed fairly or accurately. Documenting your workshop inventory does not have to be an overwhelming or unsavory task. Here’s how to make it easy…

Take a Workshop Inventory

First, if you are not already practicing “5S” to keep your shop neat, clean, organized, and safe, re-read the article 5S Your Workshop. Once your shop is organized and you have shed the tools and supplies you never use, creating an inventory list will be easier.

Rename and label photos.
This one is "North Wall.jpg"

Use a digital camera and take a minimum of four pictures from the center of the space. If you cannot capture the whole shop in four pictures, take more. The idea is to create a virtual 360-degree panorama of the space.

Make the names descriptive.
This one is "West Wall Alcove.jpg"

Before going any further, transfer the pictures to your computer and/or print them (best to do both), and name/label them, for example: North Wall, West Wall, West Wall Alcove, etc. With pictures in hand, go back to the shop and start with one photo/view. Are there cabinets, drawers, or other concealed spaces? Zoom in and take more pictures, capturing details. Open drawers and cabinets and photograph what is inside. “NW Cab 2” would be a good label for the North Wall photo, second cabinet from the left.

Take detail photos of the insides of cabinets. Name them so they tie to the main pictures, like "NW Cab 2.jpg"

Continue this process until you have created a complete photo “album” of your shop. Work methodically, transferring a few pictures at a time to your computer, printing as you go. Just remember, if you spread this task over a few days and stop in the meantime to build a cat house or a cabinet, make sure you put everything back where it was when you started — you do not want to duplicate, or worse, miss an important or expensive tool when you resume your inventory.

When all the photographs are done, fill in an inventory form. Your insurance company may provide one (check their web site), you can create your own in Excel, or just download the free form we have provided (click here to download). However you choose to proceed, make sure to include at minimum the information we have provided for on our form.

Be sure to match each item’s location to the photographic record (the downloadable form includes additional hints and instructions). If you cannot remember the purchase date of an item, estimate. If you cannot remember where you acquired a tool, find a current seller. If the exact item is no longer available, find as close a match as possible. Fill in the actual or estimated cost to replace. Attach receipts wherever possible.

If you have built anything in your shop (jigs, cabinets, shooting boards, benches, etc.) indicate “self” as the source under “Where Acquired” and enter a number in the box labeled “sub-schedule.” Using the sub-schedule form, calculate the cost to replace the item. The form will guide you, but don’t forget things like hardware, finish, and especially your own labor when calculating the cost of an item. Be accurate. No insurance company will believe that your three-board bench hook is worth a thousand dollars just because you are such a talented woodworker!

Use the other sub-schedule form provided to list the contents of cabinets, drawers, or other “hidden” areas. Organize your inventory into a file or a binder. Transparent sheet protectors are useful for storing the inventory forms, receipts, and other documentation.

Soon you will have a record that will save you time and money should a catastrophe ever occur. Remember to store a copy of your shop inventory list somewhere off-site (a safe deposit box, a fire-resistant safe, your daughter’s house — anywhere besides in the shop!). Keep your inventory up to date. Each new addition to your shop will only take a minute to photograph and add to the inventory list. While you are at it, call your insurance agent and do a little “check-up” on your policy. Make sure you have adequate coverage for your growing tool collection. Now, go build something! Peace of mind is priceless!

Sep 142010

My Dad was a positive guy, and he turned the phrase around and tirelessly reiterated to me, “A good workman doesn’t blame his tools,” whenever I was tempted to blame less-than-stellar work on a saw, plane, chisel, or hammer. I grew up believing that skill was the only viable variable in craftsmanship. Well, I’m sorry Dad, but you were only partly correct. Skill can only partly offset the effects of a poorly conceived, designed, built, or tuned tool or one made of inferior materials. How can I be so unequivocal?

Simple. I was predisposed to believe that skill could overcome any tool-induced obstacle. And, to some extent, I made that belief a reality for many years… or, at least I thought I did.

For example, I used an off-brand, off-the-shelf jack plane for years. Over several months (really!) I spent thirty or forty cumulative hours trying to flatten the sole. Even after that torture, it was still not perfect. There was an off-center concavity along the trailing edge of the plane, but I feared that further flattening would render the sole of the plane so thin that additional warp was inevitable. I filed the frog and polished it flat. I flattened the iron and sharpened it to the finest edge I know how to obtain, and somehow made the plane work. But it was always a challenge, and I kept struggling. But with my Dad’s ever-present admonition, “Don’t blame the tool” haunting me, I trudged on.

Finally I broke down, broke the bank, and ordered a premium jack plane. It was nothing less than an epiphany. Suddenly, the work was fun again. I began to wax poetic and talk to total strangers about the joys of woodworking. I was working with wood, not futzing with a cheap tool. I was Lisa Batiashvili tossing away her mass-produced violin and picking up her 1709 Engleman Stradivarius for the first time. Am I exaggerating? Well, maybe a little.

But bit by precious bit, over time, I have acquired a limited “kit” of premium quality hand planes. Every time I replace a second-rate plane with a better quality plane, I ask myself, “Why did you wait so long?” Of course, the answer is always “money,” right? But if you have dithered or procrastinated up till now, do yourself a favor. Stick a crowbar in that wallet and pry out some cash for a top-notch plane, and you will soon see what I mean. You may be surprised just how good your skills really are!

Recently I purchased the Lie-Nielsen Medium Shoulder Plane. This was my first non-replacement premium plane purchase.    I have never owned or used a shoulder plane, but with many tenons to cut for a project, I decided to take the plunge; and rather than start with something cheap and replace it later, I reasoned that the wise investment now would be infinitely more prudent.

Like you, I have cut/formed tenons almost every way possible – by hand, by router, on the table saw, the band saw, cheeks by hand and shoulders on the table saw, and a dozen other variations with countless jigs, work supports, and gadgets. From personal experience I can now confirm that the fastest, easiest, most accurate, and most enjoyable way to form a tenon is to cut it by hand and tweak it to final size with a shoulder plane. Try it, and you will soon use all those homemade tenoning jigs as kindling for the fireplace.

With a lesser plane, I might be less obstreperous. But the L-N is almost a work of art. “Almost,” only because to call it such would diminish it somehow, since it is at its best when working hard, not just sitting around looking pretty (although it does that quite well, too).

Check out Highland Woodworking’s YouTube channel and see the 3-part video showing how I now hand-cut tenons and use the Lie-Nielsen Medium Shoulder Plane to achieve a perfect fit.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

In October’s Wood News column we will explore one of several different perspectives on the potential future of hobby woodworking, build a simple bench hook, and start to mill the lumber for a desk, credenza, and bookcase to be built without a table saw (but I’ll use plenty of other power tools!). See you then!

September Wood News
September Down to Earth Woodworker column