The Woodworking Afterburners

19 July, 2008

After reading Chris Schwarz’s blog entitled “Yesterday’s Shame (and Tomorrow’s,” I began to ponder some of the woodworking projects I had made in my younger days.  Some were so embarrassing I won’t even pass the details of them along to you.  Some were not that embarrassing, but they were almost.  Certainly I’ve come a long way.  Pondering these projects, I began to think about an Oldtools listserv post from a few years ago.

It’s a truism that woodworkers as a lot tend to be their own worst critics.  We will see every flaw, every boo-boo, every place in a piece that we wish we had done something differently.  We will seek out our long-suffering spouses’ opinion, the opinions of our family, friends, significant others, and even the in-laws, and they will openly admire your craftsmanship, and you will still stare at the “glaring imperfections” of your work and think, “Chris Schwarz would never have done anything this bad.”

Our forum settled on an ugly project criteria: if you can take the piece you have just built and toss it in the fire, then it needs to be there.  If you cannot burn your work, then you cannot threaten to.  Fencing sitting doesn’t work; you must accept your work silently and resolve to try harder next time.  I’ve decided to call this effect “Woodworking afterburners.”  If you can burn the piece after you’ve built it… well, you get it.

I’ve been able to recycle the wood from an old project, but I’ve never been able to toss one on the burn pile.  I guess that’s because the Scotsman in me sees the raw material and echoes my dad’s words, “I might use that for something some day.”  You know what?  Even those afterburners still have something to teach me.  I wonder what I’m going to learn from the pieces I turn out today.


It’s 97 degrees outside!

30 June, 2008

That was my mid-afternoon weather observation offering to my patient, devoted wife, as I stood dripping in our kitchen. I’m not like other woodworkers; I have the benefit of an air conditioned shop. I’m bragging, I realize, but after all that’s something worth bragging about. I’m just very glad to have a shop at all, let alone one that is so well air conditioned, and air conditioning that uses no electricity as a bonus!

Okay, by now you are beginning to catch on. My shop is set up in a barn that was erected in the 1920’s (that’s unimaginably old by Texas standards) using lumber that was obviously milled there on the ranch. The belt-driven circular saw that hooks up to the old McCormick H-model’s PTO still spins freely! The barn was built in order to house feed and hay for cattle and goats, and therefore it had no particular need to be, shall we say, pristine. Since it was built, a shed roof was added to the south side of the barn, and then the sides under the shed roof enclosed as well, creating what Texans call a lean-to. This was to house cattle and goats during feeding time. The upper 1/3 of the south wall of the barn was then removed in order to facilitate this feeding. Not a bad plan, if you are either a rancher, cow, or goat.

Now that it is 2008, we are faced with the reality that the lumber used to sheath this barn, long since unpainted (if it ever was) has become, well, autonomous. Nary a board touches another board. Some boards sport gaps of 1-1\2″ between them, leaving the unwary woodworker inside subject to a fascinating pattern of striped sunburn should he not be wary. I’ve always wanted a unique shop.

This particular arrangement offers a number of advantages. First and foremost, I never need to worry about whether there is enough insulation to make heating and cooling efficient. At this point, that realm is entirely God’s. Another advantage is that I can keep my fan population at a minimum, as there is always a breeze through the building, like it or not. And where I live in Texas, there is always a nice, warm summer breeze… through my shop. Weather reports are easy — look up, and you can see what it’s doing outside. Noise? Who cares? The cows, horses, or deer? Are you a wildlife admirer? Great! Some will be passing through shortly…

Yesterday I spent all but a few hours in my shop, most of the time following the Way of the Galoot (I’m working toward my Galoot merit badge…) Chopping dovetails and planing boards can be strenuous work. At 97 degrees, I tend to be rather wet and rank from perspiration, and since I earned that yesterday, I was making no apologies for it. As we got ready for bed last night, my wife told me my feet were dragging (I thought that I was lucky, because it felt like there were other parts of my anatomy that would qualify.) This morning, my hands won’t work the keyboard and mouse properly. My feet are killing me from being on them so much, my lower back aches from being hunched over my workbench, and various and sundry other parts would much rather have stayed in bed this morning, rather than come to work. As I was inventorying my aches and pains, however, I came to a firm, but probably not startling conclusion.

I would do it all again today.

The Shop Goldfish

27 June, 2008

By way of being employed in a position that moves it’s people around a lot, I’ve had occasion to re-think my shop several times. Each time feels like a start-up shop except with old friends; tools collected during the last set-up. Take, for instance, the squeaky, shiny Rabone folding rule I scored in a Georgetown, KY antique store more than a decade ago. It was a really nice location to visit during a really peaceful time in my life. The fact that it was worth 1000% of what I paid for it doesn’t hurt anything, either. Or the matched pair of Independence Tool saws, one a dovetail, the other a carcass. Tools that to the Galoot need no explanation.

Predictably each location has brought a series of new challenges with it; space utilization, power availability, weather tightness. My first formal shop, so designated because of the addition of a non-mobile tool (read this table saw,) was in the yard barn I had built for the purpose. And when I say purpose, I really mean main purpose, as every “shop” seems to collect the tent and extra coolers and fertilizer spreaders and… Layout was easy in that shop; the table saw got the center of the floor (pre-outfeed tables, stock rip fence.) The workbench (singular) went against the wall. An extension cord from the apartment hooked me up and got taken in at the end of a day. Simple. Soon that shop was a pleasant place to work, as long as you were willing to twist your hips around things as you walked through it.

With a move my shop grew into a single car garage, and with another move it grew into half of a two-car garage, complete with 8 plugs. Since the car could always be backed out of the garage, things like outfeed tables and toolboxes began to show up as my circle of “friends” grew. Full-sized bookcases that would have made an English librarian proud made their way out of that shop. Another move, and I had an entire building all to myself. Originally built for a previous owner’s wife who was into ceramics, it had a built in sink and discarded kitchen cupboards, a garage door at one end, 200v three-phase (for a kiln, I suppose) and windows all around. It also had a car-port off the back of it; just the place to store extra dimensional lumber (hardwood stayed inside.) Cherry and then walnut toy boxes, shaker tables sporting hand-cut dovetails were brought to life there. And again I was twisting and turning my way through that shop.

Another move, and it’s back to a two and a half car garage with no back window and the red sand of the Texas Brush Country defying all my attempts to keep it outside. The 110 degrees tended to keep shop time to a minimum. Another move, and here I am setting up shop in a barn.

Now, you might think that it doesn’t get any better than that, but let me briefly describe the barn; built at least 75 years ago, it’s been used to store hay, goats, feed, plumbing supplies, and various tenant’s trash since the original owner passed away. Amongst the aged hay, baling wire, broken glass, the Chevrolet exhaust, and smashed Coors cans is the one lone outlet, all housed by boards presumably milled on site that have long ago ceased to make physical contact with one another (which is good for lighting during the day.) I’ve learned where to put the horse bucket on my table saw (wrapped in a tarp) to catch the roof leaks.

Yet despite the balmy breezes of Texas blowing through my shop, it too has already given life to a 4′ x 6′ assembly table, a miter saw / radial arm saw station, and soon a permanent table for a portable planer. This is all justifiable; it begs the explanation I’ve offered my wife, which is that good shops have the same condition that goldfish do. They grow to the size of their environment.

The Woodworker

13 June, 2008

In one of Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation Trilogy” novels, Asimov describes the society as advanced to the point where a person being in the same room, risking physical contact with another person, has become an unacceptable societal standard.  A man could even get arrestedfor talking to another man in the communal rest room.  As Asimov’s visionary society and wit seem to come to fruition it amazes me, and piques me as we integrate into our Web 2.0 society.

I’m starting a woodworking business.  I’ve listened to Dan Miller, author of No More Mondays (, and Rabbi Daniel Lapin, author of Thou Shall Prosper ( and I’ve decided that I no longer want to have a person as a client that calls him- or herself my “boss” while they decide what my value is.  Instead, I need to honor my creator by employing myself in doing what I love.  There a lot of things I love to do, woodworking near the top of the heap and the logical stepping stone to the boat building I want to do, and it could potentially be lucrative enough to pay the cost of living in Central Texas (which I think may limit the potential market for boat building to some degree, especially in this drought year.)  So I’m launching my business.

Not being a saavy business man, but rather one of those idealistic individuals who would happily do anything for anyone, I’m having to learn about the business end of things.  There is a plethora of wonderful information about starting and running a business on the web, and I’m quickly absorbing the wisdom of people young enough to be my offspring, but if I make enough money I’ll get over that last part.  But here’s what I’ve learned: in order to be competitive in any sort of business, you need to be involved in a social web presence: hence the Web 2.0.  So I’ve joined forums, blog, am working on a web page (not as easy as I thought,) and am beginning to do some weird things with weird names: names like “Twitter” and “” and of course something else called “podcasting.”  Don’t ask me what that last word would have meant to me as a young boy!  The irony for me, of course, is that while I am launching a business in 2008, my favorite means of woodworking is as a Galoot, using the quite, gentle, unplugged hand tools of the 1800’s.

In this world of locked front doors, not talking to strangers, texting-while-IM’ing-while-talking-on-the-landline, The Wood Shepherd is birthed.  Let me raise my virtual hand (no one can see me do this anyway, so there is no embarrassment factor) in joining the social networking happening on the web.  How else can a Galoot from Central Texas make friends with folks in say, Brisbane, Australia, or Genoa, Italy, and stay out of jail?

Hello world!

5 May, 2008

Meet The Wood Shepherd!  The philosophical side of woodworking!

Why woodwork?  Now there is a question. 

I’m very involved in learning yacht design, and my instructor/mentor has summed up yachts, which most of us view as an unnecessary luxury (because we want one and can’t afford it,) very simply.  Most of us no longer earn our living using boats as a tool to catch fish or lobsters with.  That leaves us with the sole reason we design boats, build boats, and sail boats, is to make ourselves happy.  Happiness is certainly a noble pursuit.  Using that logic then, the reason I may build a table or a guitar is to make someone happy.  It may be someone who is playing the guitar and that certainly doesn’t exclude the joy of the process brings me, but nonetheless the guitarist is playing in order to make someone happy (including the guitarist) as well, and thus it goes on.

During our journey together I hope to talk with you about building things out of wood.  Those things might be a really cool guitar, or a beautiful Queen Anne bonnet-top highboy chest, or perhaps it is even a Whitehall rowing dinghy.  Maybe I’ll teach you something about it, maybe you’ll teach me.  But the journey will make us both happy!