Tools, Workspace and Wood
Tools seem a logical place to start and when I look back on things, it just may have been a tool catalog that got me into this in the first place. For myself, handtools hold a certain attraction. Maybe it’s what they stand for or possibly holding on to a part of the past, I cannot say for sure. I just know that I like the tools and what I can do with them.
rip and crosscut saw, jackplane as a scrub, 1/4″, 3/8″ and 1″ chisels, jointer plane, 15 tpi backsaw, plow plane, marking/mortise gauge, folding rule, square, scratch awl, mallet, coping saw, spokeshave, block plane
Not a very long list, but there is almost nothing you cannot make with these tools. In fact, I had even less than this when I made my first piece of furniture fifteen years ago and half of that was borrowed.
This is not to say that you should handicap yourself with such a small kit of tools but this does form the basis for what I call core tools. Once you have a good kit of core tools, add to them when you find a need. Do buy the best you can, as you will only end up replacing anything that isn’t. Also, don’t let the tools dictate what you are going to make. Decide what you want to do with your tools and get the tools that enable you to do that.
Old Tools or New
Most of the tools in my kit started out as new. I don’t have any thing that is unusual or not available somewhere (well maybe one or two). All in all, there are a good percentage of new tools available that are of very good quality. Taking a look through any number of catalogs will surprise you with just what is available in traditional woodworking tools.
I am not infatuated with old tools for the sake of their being old. The main advantage of old tools is their price. As long as the tools you’re after are not rare and collectible you can find some decent buys at garage sales and junk shops. Just be very cautious and certain of what you are buying.
Sometimes though you have to head in the direction of old because that is all that is available. The idea that older is always better is a myth. But there are exceptions, such as old Disston handsaws and the quality of some older laminated plane irons. I think the main reason older tools have this reputation is that some one has cared for and taken care of the flaws so you end up with an already tuned up tool. Many of today’s tools just need a bit of attention to work just as well if not better than your Grandfather’s tools. And there are new tools available that are much better made than even the best of cared for older tools, but they will cost you an arm and a leg.
No matter what type of work you do you need to have some place to work. I have worked in a lot of different shops, all with their own peculiarities. My first shop was not really a shop at all, it was the backyard. I have also worked in barns, back bedrooms, a loft above a chainsaw shop, a basement, garage and a shed I built. My shops have been located in my house, right outside my house and some of them were several miles away. If nothing else these shops have shown me just what I am looking for in the ideal shop.
A Place to Work
You don’t need a lot of space to make things. One shop I had was extremely small, at only 65 sq ft but I still managed to make anything from small boxes to China Cabinets. Most people found it hard to believe I worked in such a space. While it was a little small it did provide a place for me to keep making things. And a small shop is better than no shop at all.
Even though I have worked in a lot of places there are several things that, at least for me, are a necessity for doing decent work. Good light is mandatory; plenty of windows that face the right way are my preferred light source. Skylights are nice just make sure they don’t leak. Wood floors are a must; concrete and tile are just too unforgiving on your feet and to dropped tools. Lastly, some sort of heat in winter, A/C if needed in summer and wood storage right in the shop. While this has not always been the case, it has been my desire to have such things.
My Current Shop
The one car garage at my house currently serves as my shop. The best part about it is that it’s more than three times the size of my old shop. It is just about the ideal size, but not quite. I wish it was a tad bit larger, to provide more room for finishing and working on a new piece at the same time. But this shop does have room for wood storage, which I have not had for a long time. Having the garage door to open in good weather is a nice feature and makes it convenient to restock my wood supply. Easy access to the house is nice as well. A bench for my boys keeps them off my bench, but allows them to be out with me and doing their own thing.
For the first time I am able to have a dedicated sharpening and metalworking
bench along one wall. This is a real benefit, if you have the room, as it keeps metal and wood in separate areas. I used to sharpen things on my wood bench, which was not easy or convenient in the middle of a project.
Like all my shops though I will make changes as I find the need to. Recently, I covered the floor with 3/4″ tongue and groove plywood so I no longer have to work directly on the concrete. Someday I am going to cover this with solid wood flooring, but the ply will get me by for now. I want to improve my window situation next, and then find a better way to seal the roll up door while still allowing it to open.
A Word About Small Shops
As many of the shops I have worked in show, you can work just about anywhere and still get things done. Even the kitchen table will work, but don’t blame me if your significant other doesn’t like it. At one time I even used to stack wood in the hallway of our house. All you really need is room for some sort of workbench and a few tools.
One thing I learned very early on is that every thing has a place if you are going to work in a small shop. I keep mine very neat, much to the consternation of my wife; I am still less than neat when it comes to the house.
I started out in a space quite a bit smaller than the one I am in now and that first shop shaped a lot of my work habits. I had to be picked up and organized because there was not room to be a slob. It’s the only way I could work in the lack of space I do. And in all honesty, I prefer the intimacy of a smaller shop. Everything is close at hand and that small space is cheaper to heat as well.
The layout of my shop evolved with my work habits and your shop should do the same. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you.
Selecting Wood to Use
Wood is such a varied and different material my only words of advice to a hand tool woodworker are to use wood that works well with your tools. Alder, Walnut, Cherry and Pine are all pleasant to work with. All of them plane easily, are not a problem to glue up and are readily available. Some are harder than the others, but they all are tool friendly.
The tools by nature impose some restrictions so don’t handicap yourself further by using wood that’s mean to your tools. Woods such as Teak and Rosewood can be worked by hand, as cabinetmakers of the past proved, but they are hard on your edge tools. They can also be a problem to finish not to mention the problems of the forests they come from. They are obscenely priced as well.
Most of my wood is kiln dried from a local lumber supplier. I tend to buy surfaced lumber, as there is little benefit to buying rough lumber when you have to plane it by hand. Not to mention the fact that you can’t even see what you are getting with rough lumber. The wood I buy is only surfaced on the faces and the edges are still rough. All the mill marks come off as I make a piece anyway. The kiln dried versus air-dried is kind of a useless argument unless you are building boats and need the bending qualities associated with non- kiln dried wood. They both have merit so use the wood that works for you.
One last thought about buying wood. Be picky. Just because the lumberyard may have bought some junk doesn’t mean you have to. If the yard does not want to let you pick through the lumber go somewhere else. At the same time though, be reasonable in what you expect from the yard, don’t expect them to unstack thousands of board feet of lumber so you can pick out a few sticks. Buying wood requires some give and take from both sides.
After messing with numerous shops I have come to the conclusion that I prefer vertical storage to stacking things up. I have found that standing boards up makes it easier to sort through them, which I do frequently, and takes up far less space. The only restriction on storing wood this way is the height of your shop. I had to punch out some sheetrock in mine so now the boards go up into the attic space. Do provide some way to prevent your stock from leaning over and falling on you or one of your projects. The rafters take care of this in my shop. Take a look around at your local lumber supplier to see how they do it.
Alder, A Personal Favorite
I stumbled across Red Alder back when I first started making furniture and wanted to move on to hardwoods. I have made blanket chests, dressers, china cabinets and all sorts of other furniture with it. Unfortunately, you are not very likely to find it if you do not live in the Western part of the United States.
Often it is bypassed at the lumberyard as a lowly paint grade secondary wood which is a shame as kiln dried stock has a warm orange brown color when oiled. Air-dried stock has a much more orange color and is prone to what someone described as “watermelon stains”. These are large splotchy white areas throughout a plank. I have also been told this can occur if boards are not put into the kiln soon after cutting.
Alder’s grain is subdued, but can be lightly figured and prismatic. I have even come across a piece covered with bird’s eye, which is extremely rare. I have only seen it once in the couple of thousand board feet I have worked with or sorted through over the years. Small knots are common, but these only add character from my view. One other thing I have run into is small mineral deposits. These are greenish in color and tough on plane blades. One swipe and there will be a good size nick in the blade. Watch for them and plane around them and over them only during the last few passes.
It holds screws well; glues up without a hitch and handplanes leave a surface that is almost glossy. When paring end grain there is a tendency for the wood to crush if your chisels are not absolutely sharp. Taking light cuts will help. Another plus is it’s availability in my area, most lumberyards carry it.
About the only down side to this wood is it’s movement in use and difficulties in finishing. Contrary to what the books say personal experience has shown that it moves a lot, as much as 1/4″ in 12″ of board width, winter to summer, and this is a finished piece of furniture, in a centrally heated home (mine). As long as you are aware of this you can build to accommodate it and avoid problems before they occur. Alder can be difficult to finish as well. I use a lot of linseed oil/wax mixture and when first applied the wood appears “cloudy”, but this clears up in a couple of days. I have no idea why, but it does.
All in all with it’s subdued grain, easy workability, and pleasant color, Alder is my favorite wood. And remember, if you don’t like it, you can always turn it into chips and smoke a fish with it….
Thoughts About Cutting Trees
As a woodworker I am the direct recipient of products from the forest so I am partly responsible for trees being cut down, but this doesn’t mean that every tree standing should be brought down. Cutting apart a tree is always a gamble, you never quite know what you are going to get until you make those first cuts. Trees are wonderful things whether they are providing shade or cut into pieces of lumber. I love wood, but sometimes it’s better left in the tree….