Going Pro

I’ve been selling furniture and small woodworking items for many years. By some definitions, that makes me a professional. However, throughout that time, while I’ve been serious about the craft, I’ve held a day job. There were periods during that time in which I had reduced my hours in the day job, but I didn’t fully maximize that off-time for pursuit of the craft. Now, I’m walking away from a great day job with people I admire, to pursue the craft, to get better every day, and to try to make a living working with my hands. (full disclosure, I’m keeping some hours with the office job for a little financial security and variety in my life, but I officially consider myself a professional woodworker with a part-time job).

It has been a long journey of back and forths, ups and downs, self-doubt and hubris...but it was something I thought I wanted to do nearly ten years ago. After having developed a career in government, this thought at first seemed outrageous, but it persisted. My skills in the shop steadily improved, sales increased and the interest grew. I read books and blogs and that encouraged me to dive in; I read books and blogs that encouraged me to stay on the traditional path; I sought out and spoke to other people who made similar transitions (each of them was incredibly generous). Then I started down the road several times, only to go back to the traditional well-worn path.

Last fall, when I must have had an extra cup of coffee or something, I decided I could just do both pursuits full-time. I quickly learned that while some people may have been able to pull that off, I could not. This last leg of the journey was incredibly challenging. But I learned a so much from doing it. First, it was probably one of the best office jobs I’ve ever had. So, if I still wanted to leave that to pursue the craft, that was a good sign. Second, in order to even remotely keep up with demand, I had to work at a professional pace: turning out high quality goods quickly. Not having the luxury of time forced me to get faster and better. Finally, by treating my woodworking like another full-time job, I had face the prospect of getting up at 0430 on a Sunday (and every other day of the week) to start a workday...not once in a while...but every week. I figure, if I can still get out of bed that early on a weekend and go to work without resentment (for eight months), I’m probably gonna be OK in the long run.

I’m not sharing this because I think what I did is special. Lots of people do similar things. Bob Clagett of I like to Make Stuff did pretty much the same thing to get his Maker business kickstarted (and he has FOUR KIDS!). Elizabeth Gilbert was waiting tables throughout her writing career until the wild success of Eat Pray Love (perhaps you’ve heard of that?). Perhaps more importantly, as I kept telling people, there are single moms out there raising kids, working multiple jobs, going to school, all at once.

I’m sharing this for several reasons:

One, if you’re a customer of mine: thank you for your patience and I hope the backlog clears out more quickly now!

Two: lots of people have shared joy/jealously that I’m able to do this...I wanted to share a little bit of how I made the decision and show that it was heavily considered and tested before I jumped. More on this below AND in another post.

Finally, as I’ve told people my plans, no one responded with the expected, “You’re nuts!” Most people have been incredibly supportive. I have really appreciated that. Some people have responded with supportive-jealousy, e.g., “you’re living my dream.” While I still take that as supportive, I’d like to add that: no, I am not. I’m doing what I want to do...and it might all fail miserably...but I’m gonna try it, because we get one short life....I’m not special...and if you want to do something slightly less-than expected, you should go for it.

Photo by Shawn Bruce,  Bruce Creative Works

Photo by Shawn Bruce, Bruce Creative Works

The wood-shavings guy

My little neighborhood has an active community composting project. It’s in one of the small parks one sees around DC. About a year ago, I learned that I could bring my sawdust and woodshavings there to add to the compost. I had previously hesitated to do this because I didn’t want to navigate the bureaucracy of joining another community group and I didn’t fully understand why composting was so great.

On the latter point, I should note that I’ve been composting in my backyard since 2007. In fact, when we moved from our previous house, I packed the compost in a garbage can and moved it with us. I loved that I could create rich dirt for plants to grow from my household waste. However, the amount of wood waste I generate is so large that it can’t be contained in backyard compost project…The thing I didn’t fully appreciate is that compostable waste, when not put in a place where it will decompose properly, remains solid waste. So, all the times I bagged up my sawdust and tossed it, it has just contributed to a pile at a landfill. That bag will be there for a very long time…

Anyway, my buddy Ken told me they were desperate for “brown” material…essentially, leaves, twigs, etc., that you’re supposed to add to compost when you add your nasty household banana peels, coffee grounds, etc. He said my woodshop waste was perfect…he and his wife also explained the science of what I described above. So, I immediately began walking my bag of shavings over to the compost area whenever it was full.

This past weekend DC hosted the Rock and Roll half marathon…an annual event that closes roads and brings neighbors out to watch athletes in their prime (and other mortals determined to prove something, or die trying) run through our neighborhoods. Ken was on my corner, along with some of his composting pals. I stopped by their group was introduced as “the woodshavings guy…”

Anytime we are reduced to a title, it can be a moment of reflection (he’s so-and-so’s husband; he’s the guy that used to sell crack; he’s the furniture builder I told you about). It’s sometimes limiting, sometimes embarrassing, sometimes a moment of pride…but it always gives you a little insight into how you are viewed by those around you. In this case, I learned that for a small community (composters) I have an important role…I supply the brown material they need to make their dirt. I found a little joy in that…not pride or anything like that…I just saw the humor of the moment. That the few extra minutes of walking a bag of “trash” down the street contributed to something people work hard on… and that I have a new title I wasn’t even aware of…”the wood-shavings guy”

Film Project

In December 2018, I was enjoying the busiest time of my woodworking career. Thanks in large part to a place called Shop Made in DC, I was selling tons of small items. The visibility of my work in that store led to other cool things: my city councilman bought gifts for city council members from me after seeing my work there, I got some cool commissions, and a guy named Shawn Bruce decided he wanted to make a film and feature me.

If the music in your brain just stopped and you heard the sound of the needle going off the record, you just had the same experience I did the day I opened the first email from Shawn. I had never met the guy before, nor did I feel credible enough to be in a film about woodworking. But in his note, he said that his grandfather had been a hobbyist woodworker who spent his days working a government job and longed to make a living from his shop. That got my attention. Shawn, who enjoys a wonderful relationship with grandmother (his grandfather has since passed) was drawn to the craft as a child— maybe more so as an adult— and he wanted to use his camera to explore it with me.

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I HATE being the center of attention. I love talking with one or two people about interesting things; I don’t like talking about myself. Being in front of a group or a camera is more terrifying than using a table saw without a fence (I would suppose, I’ve never done that, especially if anyone from OSHA is reading)

I would normally be hesitant for other reasons. In the woodworking community, we have some actual masters, legends...people who have forgotten more about wood movement than I’ll ever know. Those are the people about whom films could be made.

But oddly, something about Shawn’s note--its sincerity, its authenticity, its ties to his grandparents, and the fact that it was nicely written--convinced me to say yes without much thought. As I hope you’ll see, this film isn’t really so much about me or my work; it’s about how I think about the craft and why I enjoy it.

Shawn did this as a personal project and he had total creative control, though he was very accommodating to my neuroses about being on film! So all credit on the quality of this piece goes to him. Thanks also are due to Shop Made in DC and the staff who let us film there during regular business hours. Thanks also to one of my favorite customers, Dan, who let us interrupt his Sunday to film some finished pieces (he also fed us!).

I’m really grateful for the opportunity this project gave me to solidify and share some of the thoughts that have lived unexamined in my head for years. I’m proud to be a part of the piece and happy to have met Shawn.

Check out the film here.

If you’re looking for a videographer/photographer, I can’t recommend Shawn highly enough. You can see the quality of the work yourself...he approaches it like a craftsperson and his love for it is evident in every step. If you’re not a natural on camera, he will put you at ease and I think you’ll enjoy the process. See more of his work and get in touch with him here:


Just pursuing mastery

This is the second post in a series (of at least two!) exploring ideas around time in the shop. The previous post explored the notion of being “full-time”…this one looks at the notion of “hobbyist”


Let me first start by saying that if you consider yourself a hobbyist and feel that is a productive way to describe what you are doing (in any endeavor), then rock-on. Please read what I have to say carefully…this is not meant to deter you, undermine you, or poke fun at you…it is just me sharing some thoughts about my work.

The word “hobby” is generally defined as something that one does for pleasure in one’s leisure time. That’s an innocuous definition and one that I can live with. But the word has been poisoned for me in two ways.

When people see my shop, see me at a craft show, or otherwise learn that I do woodworking, I often get the question: “Are you a professional, or just a hobbyist?” The question itself presents a false dichotomy: do you do this everyday for money, or are you just goofing around in your shop to avoid other responsibilities (exaggerated for effect). By definition, I am a professional—because I sell my work for money (and occasionally baked goods, or other good trades). 

But even if I never sold anything, I wouldn’t call it “just a hobby.” That’s letting yourself off the hook. I am trying to get better…I am trying to pursue mastery of a craft. I have a long way to go-- sometimes, it only gets the attention a hobbyist would be able to give it. Sometimes, I’m in full-on production mode with tired hands and a sore back. But every day in the shop, I’m pursuing mastery. The stakes may not always be super high, but the work is never inconsequential. It is not about simply passing the time to have fun. I enjoy the work…it is fun…but it is not inconsequential. 

Part of what drew me to this trade, or rather, kept me at it when I was first starting, is that that are objective, measureable standards. In plenty of other pursuits, this is missing…your success in an office could depend on your ability to impress/win approval from a mercurial boss or client. Your skills of persuasion need to be as sharp as your hard skills. While I do have clients to impress with the design and finish choices, the craftsmanship has standards: the case is square, or its not; the joints are tight, or they are not; there is tearout, or not, etc.

Woodworking, or any trade, is a craft. It is a way to make a living for many (a hard way). It is something that many people pursue for leisure. For some, it is even therapeutic. That is for each person to decide for him or herself. If you want to remain a “hobbyist” cool…but let me give you an idea to consider: do not refer to yourself as “just a hobbyist.” Your work in the shop is not inconsequential. It matters…it should be treated that way.


Nobody wants to work hard in the trades anymore?

Several prominent people and well, most of Generations X and Baby Boom have lamented the reluctance of young people to work. In another ten years or so, Millenials will enjoy the same privilege. This is largely a generalization across all fields, but gets particular resonance in reference to the trades.  (I’ll note here that it is bullshit…I know plenty of young millenials killin it in the trades and in the cubicles. Similarly, I know lots of lazy older people).

I was born in 1979. So, depending on your definition, I’m either a young Gen Xer (which is how I would self-identify) or an old Millenial (whose iconoclastic tendencies and entrepreneurial spirit I admire…also, avocados). When it comes to work ethic and the discussion above, my view (I think) is cross-generational: work your ass off, every day. 

I grew up in a very rural area. My dad was a heavy equipment mechanic, my mom worked in a canning factory. Dad left every day at 645ish and worked at his day job until about 4. Then, he typically did work for a farmer, a volunteer firehouse, or some other side gig, before getting home around 6 or 630. Most Saturday mornings he was working for someone else or around the house. During cherry “season” (most of the summer), Mom would work from 530am to 530pm every day, 7 days a week, 21 days in a row. Then, she would get one day off (by law, she had to) and do another round. 

Being a good worker was about the highest compliment you could be given. I recall here the old Garrison Keillor trope about how in Lake Wobegon you could be a drunk, gambling, foolish spendthrift, but if you were a good worker, all those faults were overlooked. Victory, NY, my hometown, is much different (and even smaller) than Keillor’s fictional village, but the same norms applied. If you were the kind of person who showed up late to work, let other people do your job, or slacked off in anyway, you were the source of derision. If you were a good worker with a lot of issues, those issues were typically forgiven. (“I mean, he isa good worker”).

Recognizing these norms before I knew what norms were, I got work as soon as possible. There, it meant farm work. Primarily, taking hay off a wagon and putting it into a barn. I got paid $5/hour. I loved it. Later, I did other stuff like mow a cemetery, picked up trash at a Renaissance Festival, and trimmed Christmas trees. Odd jobs in more ways than one.

I was praised for doing this, but I was only following the example of my parents (and most other people whom I admired). I was expected to work as teenager. To not work was not acceptable. When at work, I was expected to work hard and when you’re doing things like picking rocks out of field with a group of people, it’s immediately apparent to everyone who is working hard and who is not. This was an adjustment for me when I began working in offices (more on that in another post).

But working at a young age isn’t necessary to have an admiration for work or a good work ethic. My wife’s family had a different approach. She and her sister were instructed that they would be working for the rest of their lives and that they should enjoy being young. However, they are two of the hardest working people I know and take their careers very, very seriously. 

Yes, at some point in there, we were all encouraged to go to college. My father once told me he didn’t really care what I did for work, but that I should try to find a job where I didn’t have to get dirty every day. Our generation of parents saw this as the next step in the “evolution” of the middle class.  And yes, imagining your kid sitting in a nice chair in an air-conditioned space where the biggest work place hazard is tripping on your headphone cord is probably a natural instinct. But when your parents and/or neighbors were tradespeople, or worked in factories, or simply valued good work, encouragement of going to college did not undermine value of the trades. 

What am I getting at? I value the trades and hard work because I was taught to value the trades and hard work. Our values are taught to us, implicitly, by those around us. We are now that adult generation and if we want the trades and hard work to be respected, we need to teach the younger generation to respect it—not tell them to. At least as much as they respect and admire people making a living by playing video games on YouTube. Unfortunately, what I hear from people in the trades is the continued refrain of “no one respects people in the trades”, “no one wants to learn my trade” , “kids don’t want to work hard.” I think these laments inadvertently undermine the cause. It reinforces the view we’re trying to overturn.

While you should certainly be honest about how hard it is to make a living in some trades (either because of pay or the physical labor, or both), lets talk about how awesome it is that people invite us into their homes to improve them? Maybe talk about how we go into a job and build not only a new cabinet, but a new friendship. Or how, unlike an office job where one’s success depends largely on his/her ability to convince others of their perspective and value, the trades offer a no-bullshit display of knowledge and skill. The work is done well, or it isn’t. The drain leaks, the cabinet door sags, the breaker trips when the coffee pot is turned on? That’s on you. You can fix any of those things? That’s a superpower. 

Put differently, instead of the “woe is me” attitude, or the preciousness of “no one else can do this, it is so hard” attitude, how about some honest, but encouraging perspective from the best among us? Mike Rowe has done this wonderfully with his show. But you don’t need to be on TV to discuss the better parts of the life you chose.











Woodwright's School Experience, Part II

I had the good fortune of getting a spot in Will Myers’ Moravian Workbench class at the Woodwright’s school in early September (for more on the school, read the previous post).

Will is a self-professed hillbilly who happens also to be a scholar of the Shakers (and possibly other things as well), an accomplished woodworker, and a talented welder and auto body restorer…the kind of guy you’d want on your team in pretty much any challenge. He’s also a very patient and generous teacher…and he tells jokes.

Here's a photo of Will with the Legend, Roy Undehill (Photo by Daniel Hamden)

Here's a photo of Will with the Legend, Roy Undehill (Photo by Daniel Hamden)

This was my first project-based class and the only experience I can compare it to is the one time I went on a chartered fishing trip in Alaska. On the fishing trip, the guides packed the boat, prepared the bait, found the fish, baited the hooks, cast the rod, and gave us the joy of just catching and landing the fish; the guides cleaned the fish, and unpacked the boat, etc. Here, you come into class with all the lumber pre-milled and ready to go; Will walks you through each step—no need to consult a plan or stare at the boards trying to figure out where to cut your joints. A lot of the guess and mule work is taken right out of the equation and you can just enjoy the best parts of the experience.

The project is a beast of a bench. You wouldn’t guess it by looking at it, or even by watching Will swing the pieces around in a video, but the individual parts (southern yellow pine and oak) are stout, and overall, the bench is pretty hefty. I have done a fair amount of woodworking, and some hand-cut joinery, but I had never done anything close to the scale of joints in this project, which included boring one-inch mortises through a four-inch thick hunk of southern yellow pine. I think we spent the better part of a morning boring and chopping those suckers. Make no mistake, you’ll feel that the next day.

Camp "Whack-a-Chisel"...Here I am (center-left) mallet raised, pounding a chisel through a mortise. My classmates are at various stages of cutting and fitting their joints.

Camp "Whack-a-Chisel"...Here I am (center-left) mallet raised, pounding a chisel through a mortise. My classmates are at various stages of cutting and fitting their joints.

But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t fun…At one point, I looked around the class, and the seven other students were all contentedly whacking away at their mortises with mallets and chisels. It was at this point that I started referring to my experience as “Camp Whack-a-Chisel,” it seemed appropriate, as basically, my only adult responsibility for the week was feeding myself and driving to and from class. The rest of the time was just contended woodworking.

The class, however, brought more than the usual level of contentment. Cutting and fitting joints is generally fun—there is something naturally fulfilling about it and it doesn’t get old. However, this project brought that joy to a new level—bigger joints, angled joints, and a tusk tenon. The tusk tenons actually hold the whole bench together. Will “warned” the class for fitting the tusk tenon was the best part of the whole class…and he wasn’t lying. The oak wedges pull long stretchers to the legs, tightly against the shoulders (if you’ve done it right). And you can’t move that sucker…it’s like it was glued and screwed by Norm Abram himself. The best part though, is that simply by whacking the other side of the wedge, you can knock the whole thing apart and take the bench wherever you want.

Here's Will demonstrating the tusk tenon (Photo by Daniel Hamden)

Here's Will demonstrating the tusk tenon (Photo by Daniel Hamden)

Another point on the bench is that, as Will points out, it’s a forgiving design. If something is off by a hair here and there, you can easily address it. Part of this flexibility comes from the hand tool approach, sure, but the bench itself does not require federal style precision—just the best you can do.

If you are interested in the bench but can't take the class, you can read more about it (from Will himself) here

Lost Art Press has written on it several times, so you can search their blog for that info...

Popular Woodworking also produced a video of the bench build, which I haven't seen...you can check it out here

If you decide to take the class, you should know a few things…these things are noted in the class description, but I’ll emphasize them here.

You won’t finish the whole bench in the class (unless something changes next time around). This doesn’t really matter though—Will shows everyone what to do and it’s just a few simple tasks to take it across the finish line.  I finished my bench at home, including boring a bunch of dog holes, flatting the top, building the tool tray, and putting on a coat of oil, in less than a day.


Here's a photo of my bench, in my shop, just before I put on a coat of oil.

While the bench is mobile, it is heavy. The top alone probably weighs around 150lbs, give or take…so unless you’re a beast with huge arms, you don’t want to move it too far. This is a strong point for the bench, as it needs to be heavy enough to handle the beating you’re going to give it…and the beating future generations will give it (if you build it right). Having used mine for a few days now, I can vouch for its stoutness…planing boards, sawing boards—that sucker doesn’t move.

Finally, the class is going to be a lot of labor—you’re going to be moving heavy pieces around (although Will has organized the class so that this is kept to a minimum), swinging mallets for hours, pushing big augers, and standing on your feet...for probably about 10 hours a day. For me, this was great—I like hard work…and all that work made seeing the joints come together, and the final product too, all the more glorious.

Big takeaways:

I’ve always been drawn to handtools, but never done a whole project using them exclusively. Moreover, I’d never chopped a mortise with a chisel. This project, and the scale of the joints we did by hand, makes “normal” mortise and tenon joints look pretty easy. Yeah, I’ll probably still use the domino when it makes sense, but I have way more confidence to tackle more hand cut joints (beyond my usual dovetails).

Here we are (I'm the one in the middle) cutting our angled tenons. This is around the moment when I fell in love with Will's 4 TPI rip saw which made fast work of these 10(ish) inch long tenons. Ed, upstairs, quickly found me something similar, sharpened it, and sold it to me. (Photo by Daniel Hamden).

Here we are (I'm the one in the middle) cutting our angled tenons. This is around the moment when I fell in love with Will's 4 TPI rip saw which made fast work of these 10(ish) inch long tenons. Ed, upstairs, quickly found me something similar, sharpened it, and sold it to me. (Photo by Daniel Hamden).

Most of the hand-cut joinery instruction I’ve seen has been online content. It’s good content, but it has always focused on good layout and removing waste slowly and carefully—sound instruction, sure. Will, however, teaches students how to do layout and waste removal smartly and quickly. Things like “just eyeballing” when centering a joint on a board, and then just keeping your gauge consistently on the face of the boards to keep things lined up. It was a new approach for me and it worked. It’s faster and it keeps you saner.

Finally, this was the most fun I’d had in a long time. I will make this kind of class an occasional (yearly?) treat.

Not sure what was going on here, but I was in the wood shop, with some good classmates and Roy Underhill himself. Uncle Roy probably cracked wise here, or maybe it was someone else, but this photo speaks for itself...we had a good time. (Photo by Daniel Hamden)

Not sure what was going on here, but I was in the wood shop, with some good classmates and Roy Underhill himself. Uncle Roy probably cracked wise here, or maybe it was someone else, but this photo speaks for itself...we had a good time. (Photo by Daniel Hamden)

The Woodwright's School experience...part I

I had the extremely good fortune of spending 1-5 September at Roy Underhill’s Woodwright’s school taking the Moravian Workbench class with Will Myers. It was such a good time, I thought I’d write about it to help collect my thoughts and to encourage others to try it for themselves.

Location, Location, Location

If you’ve never been to the Woodwright’s school, you’re missing out. If you’re at all interested in hand tool woodworking, it’s probably as close to heaven on earth as you’ll find. Sure, Lie-Nielsen Toolworks is a pretty cool place, and I’m sure the Lost Art Press storefront is great too. But let me paint a picture for you: the school is in Pittsboro, North Carolina, which is basically straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. There is literally a soda shop next door. It’s a small town with lots of independent businesses—plenty of places to get meal or a beer (more on that later).

Inside the shop are about a dozen sturdy workbenches, and if there is a class, 8 or so enthusiastic students sawing, chiseling, and planing their way toward enlightenment. The shop is plenty cool in hot weather, well-lit, and fully capable of holding a shop full of sawdust makers without anyone feeling too crowded. All in all, the shop is just where the magic happens—it doesn’t need much in the way of description.

When you take a break from making sawdust, you can take a walk upstairs and visit Ed’s antique tool store. There, you’ll find an array of “users” (both tool addicts and plenty of well-tuned saws, planes, chisels, measuring implements, etc.). Ed is a hand tool expert, saw sharpener, and overall great guy with whom you can chew the fat while resting your hands.

At the end of the day, clean up your mess, and walk through the back door of school and into the front door of the City Tap—a local bar with a good selection of local brews and typical bar fare.

In case you haven’t put it all together on your own, let me nutshell it for you really quickly: there’s a hand tool woodworking school in a lovely little town; above the school is well-stocked hand tool woodworking store; behind the school is a bar. This is a veritable summer camp for woodworking nerds.

I passed through Pittsboro this past spring on my way to a wedding and stopped by the school to check it out. About 30 seconds into my visit, I decided I needed to take a class. But because I was a little late to the party, the classes were already full (they are announced in January and pretty much filled up in a few days).  But during my visit Roy encouraged me to join the waitlist and remain hopeful. I was lucky to get into the Moravian workbench class with Will Myers…more on that in a future post.

Jointed Love

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been working on a new island for our kitchen. It’s a relatively straightforward piece: two cases, side-by-side, with a few open shelves and six drawers; slab top, which is next on the list of projects.

Because of the size of the piece, I chose to build it out of veneered plywood. It is joined together with Festool dominoes and a few screws in places where they add strength and where no one will ever see them. After building the several plywood cases that make up the new island, as well as the six drawer boxes, also from plywood, I started on the drawer fronts, which are solid cherry.

I’ve been trying to think of just the right analogy to talk about this transition from plywood to hardwood, but I can’t quite find the perfect one:

- It’s like sleeping in your own bed after a week of travel that involved tent camping

- It’s like foraging for nuts and berries for a week and then sitting down a steak dinner, paired with a cold beer… and there’s cake for dessert

- It’s like using a no-kidding sharp chisel after years of fumbling with a yard sale special

I’m still working on these analogies so maybe I should just try to explain myself using my words?

Plywood has it’s place…and large cabinets are one of them. The backside of my cabinet will be exposed (It’s an island, remember) and that side will be painted. That painted face is 37 inches and high and 66 inches long. The time (and money) to glue up even paint-grade wood for such a huge panel was simply too much when compared to using plywood. If I had chosen to have a hardwood surface, I probably still would have used a veneer plywood.

Veneer ply is often beautiful. I’ve had some wonderful cheery veneered ply that had amazing figure. Of course, the best logs in the pile are often cut into veneers and a lot of that veneer makes it into plywoods.

So, I’m not against the stuff. It’s just not my favorite way to build.

Solid wood, as a medium, is imbued with organic qualities—slight variations and imperfections that give it character. You can choose to work with those imperfections, or avoid them and you have many ways to do that. Imperfections in plywood usually include voids in the plies that you find only after you have no more stock left to replace the damaged piece. Oh yeah, the imperfections in solid wood are often charming or at least intriguing; imperfections in plywood result from manufacturing mistakes.

Similarly solid wood has usually been processed and handled very little by the time it gets to me in the shop. It’s still kinda new (as new as anything that is probably well over 100 years old can be) and I am responsible for shaping it. Plywood, on the other hand, is manufactured; its thickness is determined; it almost demands a rectilinear form. It’s ready to use, but its uses are limited.

When I start working the wood, there are other considerations. When I run a cherry board through the table saw, there is a wonderful smell that fills the shop. When I cut a hunk of plywood with my track saw, it just kinda smells funny.

More practically speaking, solid woods allow for the fine adjustments that are inevitable in our work—if the fit is a little tight, or the piece a little too big, you just plane off a few strokes here and there. This is much harder with plywood—you can’t really plane it, on any of its edges or faces: the end grain is on all four sides; the veneer is too thin to mess with. Plywood is really good at being a determined thickness, throughout, and being more-or-less rectilinear. There are a number of other practical considerations, but I suspect most woodworkers are familiar with them and most non-woodworkers are less interested in them.

So what about those weird analogies?

I had milled the wood for the drawer fronts a week or so before I was ready for it and it remained pretty flat. So, rather than fire up the planer for a few rounds, I busted out my No. 7 Jointer plane and hit each board with a few passes. The plane engaged the wood, the wood pushed back gently, but yielded to the steel, and then released a thin shaving into a tight curl that collected on top of the blade and hopped itself to the floor at the end of the pass. The process repeated several times, without the whirr of machine noise, or the distraction of dust. A smooth, clean surface rose up from the board, revealing itself from beneath the machine marks. The long flat plane’s sole knocked down small bumps and brought little hollows all into the same plane. Then I flipped the board over, and repeated the process. I did this six times—one for each drawer front.

An often overlooked or under-appreciated part of this craft is understanding the medium. We focus a lot on how to avoid injury (to ourselves and the wood), how to avoid tear out, and how to design for strength. But we sometimes spend too little time doing things the way we enjoy doing thems. Even when the project is for a client other than a spouse and the bottom line is a bigger concern, we should savor the processes we enjoy—it’s why we get into this business. There are plenty of turd sandwiches to eat…

Making the drawer fronts was literally the easiest part of the entire process—I cut out some rectangles, planed them smooth and flat, put an edge on them, did a little touch up work, and voila. Building big cabinet cases was a little more challenging physically and technically, but making those drawer fronts is what made the project for me.



people love to be angry (a non-woodworking post)

"Hell is other people"

-Sartre, No Exit

I don’t think much new ever happens. Most of us spend our days the same way people spent their days in the year 1000: walking around, smiling, trying to earn enough to eat, while neurotically doing these little self-proofs in our head about how much better we are than these other slobs. While simultaneously, in another part of our brain, secretly feeling woefully inadequate to these smarter, more beautiful people.” (Hat tip to Nick Offerman, who cites this quote in his tremendous book, Gumption)

- George Saunders, CNN interview at the turn of the millennium

Since I was 17 and first read No Exit, the line “Hell is other people” both resonated with me and troubled me, so I read more dark existentialist literature...and maybe understood some of it.

Both No Exit and the Nausea explore the notion of how we can fully intend to act in very specific ways, but a small transgression, or even just a misinterpretation by another person, can shatter that identity we've worked for. For example, Imagine a young couple striving to be good parents, good professionals, good family members, good spouses, etc. They design their lives around these shared and well-intentioned goals. They buy the best things for their kids; they say the right things at parties where they have dressed the right way; they perform well at work, etc. But someone decides they are fakes—probably cheating on each other and their taxes. “No one is that good…that guy is on Tinder as we speak setting up his next triste,” they might say. You've seen this, probably, in your own circle of friends and acquaintances. Alternatively, one day one of these goody-two-shoes might lose their patience and scream expletives at a driver who has ignored a nearby stop sign in earshot of their neighbors. Again, the identity the've worked so hard to build is now in question: they are no longer the ideal spouse/professional/parent/family-member; they are the crazy person that yells at cars.

These two works really helped me to understand the dynamics of identity and judgment and why people worry so much about what other people think: they care because they think about other people so much and build identities in their mind for those other people.

Which is where the Saunders quote becomes helpful.

People love to be angry. They collect injustices; they seek sorrow; they seek opportunities to be indignant. In fact, there is almost an excitement in their eyes and mannerisms when the moment of transgression becomes clear:

- they’ve been cut off in traffic

- the waiter screwed up their order

- someone was rude to them on the phone

…and so on

It's a puzzle I tried to solve for a long time...why are people, who ostensibly seek to be happy, so excited when they get angry? Who hasn’t, when pissed, decided to hang on to it for a while? To share their anger with whomever would listen? To shake their head in incredulity as they look to their interlocutor for validation?

So what’s going on here?

I think the George Saunders quote above is the key to understanding it. People are simultaneously insecure and superior. They are trying to balance these competing “voices” in their head: one telling them others are better; one telling them they are better than everyone else. When this poor, conflicted soul (anyone of us) experiences the hoped-for transgression, the voice of superiority is fed. “Yes, see! That other person is THE WORST! Can you believe they ran that stop sign? I follow traffic rules and keep the world safe for pedestrians and puppies! But that guy! No way—he has to get somewhere, fast. Probably the Asshole store before they run out of 'I’m with stupid T-shirts.'” Then, this voice goes external…because, now, we have proof, PROOF! That other people suck. And if we don’t tell the world, right now, no one else will know that we’re not the worst.

That post-transgression moment is a moment of great relief. That voice telling them how inferior they are to everyone else is finally silenced. Because they are not inferior to THAT guy. That light that you see in people’s eyes when they start to get angry at another person’s actions…that’s the relief of not being the transgressor.

And the people hearing this story, once the “injured party” begins sharing it have one of two reactions: shared incredulity, which is usually accompanied by piling on (What?! WHAT?! He did WHAT??!! I can’t believe some people). Or just simple head-shaking…it’s either a small or extra large version of shared incredulity...which many will joyfully welcome, because it means they are not in the spotlight of judgment, at least for the moment. But rarely do we hear people say, “hey, maybe that dude who ran the stop sign just didn’t see it…or he had a sick kid at home, a big day at work, and a lingering argument with his spouse and he just absent mindedly ran the stop sign.” Have you?

Mini-transgressions are common sources of shared incredulity and nastiness. Perceived incompetence, poor performances, perceived fashion faux pas or poor taste…. Probably, this is because we’re all so damn insecure about these choices/performances ourselves that we'll grab these low-hanging fruit. Anger over these mini-transgressions are so much more damaging to me because so often these things are without any consequence to us. Someone stammers during a presentation; someone wears goofy shoes to work; someone has a few type-os in an email to the team. AND people just jump all over those things. “Did you see that?” “I KNOW, right? What a dumbass”

Here’s the thing. Those words—the sharing of the transgressions you’ve so righteously informed the world about? They’ve plowed a furrow in your mind…the other side of your mind…the one that feels so inadequate. Yeah, it sees just how indignant and angry other people get when they see any type of inadequacy or transgression in the world. And every action you take now becomes an opportunity for that side of the brain to feed the voice of inadequacy. You stammer during a presentation at work? “Oh man, you suck…they are all going to be talking about how bad of a presenter you are when they go to lunch—without you. You know they love to rip people up who give bad presentations. How do you even still work here? You’re the worst performer on the team.

In reality—maybe no one even noticed, or cared about your stammering during a presentation. Pro tip: no one really listens that closely when other people speak—especially in formal presentations. They make grocery lists and think about how superior/inadequate they are to everyone else in the room. But, that little voice of inadequacy—which you fed and bred by tearing other people down—is now ruining your presentation and your day.

So what’s the solution? It sounds silly, but it’s this: be kind to other people…simple as that. Acts of unkindness stick with you and, unless you’re a psychopath, make you feel like a shit. And you deserve that…for being unkind. But acts of kindness…people love that shit. And then they love you…and, unless they are psychopaths, they do nice shit for you when you feel like...poop.

Fun Fact: Only about 1 out 100 people are psychopaths

Try it. The next time you make cookies or a nice meal, make twice as much…it’s no harder and the kitchen is already a mess. Think of someone who has had a rough go for a while or is too busy (or thinks he or she is too busy) to do something good for themselves. Then, if it’s a meal, give them some notice that you’ve simply made/bought too much and you need to share it. Don’t try to stick around for dinner or impose in anyway…act as though they are doing you a favor by taking it off your hands. If it’s cookies or something that doesn’t need to be eaten or refrigerated right away, just show up with them…leave them in the mailbox with a note.

Somebody seem like they need a friend? Listen to them for a while...ask questions, try to really understand what they are saying

The next time someone screws up and you can pick them up instead of letting them rot and feel terrible, go tell them about a time when you screwed up and then buy them a coffee or something.

The next time you have the opportunity to be an asshole…don’t. That’s all. When you see a transgression—like someone running a stop sign, give them the benefit of the doubt (maybe they’re having a bad day); be grateful no one got hurt; say a little prayer for them to be safe. The next time you see someone demonstrating benign incompetence, assume they are a beginner at the task, or having a bad day. Give them a smile; tell them a joke…help them get out of their own head…they are obviously listening to that bastard voice of inadequacy. Maybe your actions will spread and become infectious in the same way that nastiness spreads.




Eating turd sandwiches

"Do the work."

"What is your favorite flavor of turd sandwich?"

I came across the first phrase in multiple places; most recently in two books from Ryan Holiday: The Obstacle is the Way and The Ego is the Enemy.

The second is from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic.

I think about these ideas a lot--in the shop and outside of it...

Doing the work is where we usually fail. We have great dreams, visions, and aspirations. Most of those lofty things remain just that, though: lofty. We are unable to overcome static friction to get moving; or we get moving but lack the momentum to persist.  

Written that way, it sounds like it a physics problem. And if faced with something big to do at work or somewhere in which you didn't have to self-start, there are all kinds of things that would keep you on track: deadlines, milestones, to-do lists, etc. But when it comes to our own aspirations, you need more than tactics.

Doing the work is about being humble. It means that just because you accomplished something in the past doesn’t mean you get to stop doing the work that got you there to begin with. It means that having the vision is not enough—it’s just the start.

Baseball provides a great example here.

Baseball players are the highest paid athletes in sports-obsessed America. They always talk about “playing the game the right way”, “keeping the line moving”, “going about their process.” They, unlike many athletes, will often defer attention from themselves and focus on the team—another hallmark of humility. Watch what happens when a player gets too cocky and talks about himself—other players will shame him and the superstitious among them will claim that he will suffer on the field. Bryce Harper is probably the easiest example to think of or look up--he entered the majors at age 19 (far younger than most) and his age betrayed him on several occasions with the media..

Baseball players show up at the ballpark at 1pm for a 7pm game; the game will usually end after 10pm, at which point they will talk to the media and probably not leave the ballpark until after 11.. Players who make 10s of millions a year to play baseball are out there in the afternoon sun doing the same drills they have done since they were six: taking ground balls, bunting, taking swings, catching pop flies, running sprints, and stretching, etc. They do not roll into the clubhouse with just enough time to get dressed and expect great things to happen because they have every other day.

They do the work. They follow their process. They stay humble

This is a cultural phenomenon throughout the game…it’s the “right way”. Players who have struggled credit new found success with a consistent approach to their game: going through a structured routine of work that is focused on nailing the fundamentals-every day.

It's not limited to baseball, obviously.

Musicians play/sing scales to warm up.

Artists sketch between projects.

Medical professionals continuously go to lectures and take classes to stay sharp.

Doing the work is made easier when we acknowledge that even within the things we love to do, we will have to sometimes eat some turd sandwiches.

Elizabeth Gilbert asks the question, “Whats your favorite flavor of turd sandwich”? This question is often asked of entrepreneurs and others striking out on their own. It’s meant to make you think about your new career/hobby/etc., in a productive way. What is the part of this enterprise that you really hate? Or, more gently, what about this new enterprise would you rather not do? If you can find joy in doing that, you’ll be just fine…at least, that’s my understanding.

Examples of turd sandwiches

In woodworking, most people really enjoy the design portion; pencil and paper or a computer screen—you’re bringing a mental image to life—you can enjoy a cup of coffee while you do it and you don’t usually break a sweat. It’s also fun to see the final product once it’s built and every one gives you love on Instagram, etc.

I really enjoy cutting joinery.  Putting together perfectly fitting joints, straight from the saw, is incredibly fulfilling. The first time you do it, it’s like magic…every other time is just really awesome. If you’re not into woodworking—just thinking of any time you’ve created something that worked out just right—a perfect omelet or soufflé; ironing a shirt just right; pruning a tree; a newly cleaned and organized room. That’s the feeling

But unlike those other activities—where you eat the soufflé or wear the shirt, in woodworking, you then, you have a load of sanding to do. This involves running a power sander, wearing safety glasses, a respirator, and hearing protection. You can avoid all of this by using handplanes on flat surfaces, but if you have curved or otherwise shapely edges, you’re still doing a bunch of sanding.

The thing is: it’s this tedious work that makes the final product actually come to life. Perfectly fitting joints and a good design will only take you so far. I built a fair number of things before I fully understood this. Preparing a piece for the finish often takes nearly as long as it does to build it. It’s also the place where one is likely to get bored and think about cutting corners. But it is the time spent here that makes the difference between a piece that is eh and a piece that is excellent.

If you watch an artist at work…and in this case, I’m thinking mostly of a sculptor or someone working with a big medium, there is a look of contentment…gladness…on their face as they work through the tedium of repeating pattern. Just making a repeated shape over and over in clay is probably a turd sandwich for most of us. But to the artist…who has the final vision in mind, he/she knows that each bite of that sandwich is leading to the final vision.

You can think also of body builders. Even if you enjoy exercise, the thought of working out for hours a day and doing hundreds of repetitions is a bit nauseating. But to world-class body builders, every single repetition is bringing them one step closer to their ultimate goal. They find joy in each sit up...each one is a tasty bite of their delicious turd sandwich.

You have to find ways to enjoy the process of what you’re doing to make the final product worth your time. If you’re investing your time and energy into something, you have to find ways to bring your final vision of that thing—the vision that motivated you to start—and hold it through out the process. 

It's that final vision that will fuel you to do the work--to get started, to persist, and to even savor your turd sandwiches.


5 Reasons Why You're Never Too Old to Make Cutting Boards

I suspect many “serious” craftsman are uninterested in the cutting board game. It’s not terribly challenging; if you’re selling them, the profit margin is not huge; and if you’re making more than a few the work can get repetitive and boring, very quickly.


But there are five good reasons to batch out a dozen or so.


First, you can clean out your scrap bin.  Wood is valuable…sure, it is a “renewable” resource, but with the various invasive species attacking our trees, let’s try not to take anything for granted.  You’re likely going to find pieces you just can’t do anything with, and really, there is nothing better than soaking those pieces in water, firing up the grill, and rewarding yourself with smoked ribs after a day of making cutting boards. 


Second, I believe people should fill their homes and lives with beautiful, handmade items.  Cutting boards fit this bill, perfectly. Cutting boards are accessible—they are not fancy dovetailed credenza’s or frame and panel bookshelves…most people can afford a small cutting board. Alternatively, if you need a gift in a hurry, you can likely afford to give someone a cutting board you’ve made (pro tip: you can only play this card a few times with the same recipient—keep track).


Third, they are great teaching moments for non-woodworkers. People are drawn to the various woods used—they want to know what kinds of wood are in there, how they were made, how they should be maintained, etc.  All of this is great for the craft—people who may not own or have the means to buy fancy hardwood furniture are exposed to multiple kinds of hardwoods, they put them to use, and introduce a handcrafted item into their daily lives.


Fourth, you get a quick return on your effort.  I tend to make cutting boards in batches.  It’s just more efficient.  I can go into the scrap bin(s), pull out a bunch of pieces, and layout 10 or 12 at a time.  This allows me to see complete objects go from a pile of scraps, into a glued-up mess, and then gradually into a finished cutting board. Over and over again, within a relatively short period of time, finished products are leaving the shop.  With a larger piece, you get the same fulfillment of watching the transition, but only once, over a long period of time.   With a bunch of cutting boards, it’s like the lightening round of fulfillment.


Fifth, it’s good practice. Using up the narrow pieces of scrap, you have to square up each little piece. Because the pieces are small, it’s smart to do this with a hand plane, which is great practice for the technique.  Failure to do it properly will result in gaps between the different colored pieces of wood…or worse, if multiple pieces are not squared up, the cutting board will not be flat (if you imagine ten pieces with an 88 degree angle, instead of 90, you can see, in your mind, how you will get a slight curve; there is probably a place for the half-pipe cutting board, but I haven’t found it yet). After a few rounds, you really get into the groove…you get in tune with your plane, you find new and creative ways to hold each piece, and you begin to get faster and faster.  The difference between 100% and 99% becomes immediately perceptible.








About an inch

An inch is almost nothing; or, it's ridiculously huge...it all depends on the circumstances. Not just in woodworking, but all circumstances. If you have an inch long piece of wood, it seems pretty small, unless it's lodged in your finger, at which point, it feels like a log.

Today, I undertook a half hour long chore of changing something by an inch: the height of my bed. Normally, the height of my bed is of little consequence: I have comfortably slept at floor level and in a loft. But we recently changed our mattress and box spring (to Caspar...I highly recommend them and they do not sponsor me). Our previous set was a bit thicker; I designed our bed frame for that set. Consequently, when sitting or reading in bed, the gap between the headboard and mattress was large enough that pillows was slowly slid down between the gap until you were completely uncomfortable. This was disappointing. It took all the fun out of reading in bed.

Fortunately, when you design and build your own furniture, you can easily remedy such calamities. The brackets holding the box spring were initially installed at the very bottom of the frame. When I pulled off the mattress and box spring this morning, I saw that I had about an inch of change I could make...so I made it. This simple adjustment required just moving a few screws and drilling a few more holes. And now, one can lay in bed and read, or sit up, without losing their comfy support...a dream so many have.

Why do I feel compelled to share this inane story of homemaking/woodworking? Too often, we live with unsatisfactory goods, workmanship, or circumstances. We have grown accustomed to a lot of crummy products (like $500 "smart phones" that need to be replaced after 2 years). We accept discomfort and inconvenience in our products too soon, too easily. It was the realization that furniture was designed for houses much bigger than the one I lived in, and often built by kids in foreign countries, that I decided I would make my own, with better designs, better materials, and less child labor (OK...NO child labor). *Child labor is not a joking matter.

While actually designing and building the furniture takes some years of study and practice, it is attainable. And if furniture and wood ain't your thing, maybe metal and tools are; or cooking; or gardening. You don't have to become a master; today, my little dose of fulfillment and measureable change came with tools and abilities most people have: a drill and a screw driver. In another set of circumstances, I could have lived with an ill-suited bed frame, bought a new one, or improvised in some other way. But the freedom afforded by owning a few tools and having a little experience and gumption, mean I now have a more comfortable bed, didn't have to spend any money, and I had a little dose of fulfilling activity on Saturday.

Blanket Chest completed months ago!

So, I fell off my promised blog updates. I apologize.

Here are some photos of the finished product. It was delivered to the customer and is now in use. As I mentioned in previous posts, I built two of these at once. I have one available for purchase if anyone is interested.

There were a lot of tricky pieces to this build. By far, the most interesting was making the individual ebony plugs. Thewoodwhisperer.com has the full video and instruction for those interested in how to do it...but for the non-woodworkers out there, know that it took over two full work days to cut, polish, and install those guys. 

Making these plugs really brought home for me something that I've observed in my artist friends for years: the ability to sit quietly and do repetitive work in the cause of the eventual beauty. Think of mosaics, patterns in pottery, tapestries, knitted patterns, etc. Making these kinds of things, in my experience, can ride on the continuum of satisfyingly therapeutic to painfully boring. The therapeutic portion comes first...maybe lasts an hour or so...then your brain wants to stop, find shortcuts, pay a kid to do it for you. But you remind yourself of the final product and how all of those details will come together...you put on some music, or a podcast (or pay a kid to help?), and you persevere. One little piece at a time...you make two, three, four--nope, that one's not right...throw it out...and finally, at the end of the day, after a full day of work, you have a paper cup full of little ebony plugs...

Not exactly a fulfilling day, but then again, I've spent entire days in the office arguing about who should send an email and whether we should say "likely" or "probably" so....

But imagine this piece without those plugs...it would look OK...nice, even. You could hide the screws in any number of ways, or even use different joinery. But the wow factor of this piece is in those ebony plugs. I don't begrudge those plugs the two days I spent making them. Not only do they make the piece what it is, but the process brought home for me the real importance of the pedestrian work that goes into some of these pieces...and to a lot of handwork in general. It explains to me the serene looks on the faces of artists I have in mind when I picture them working.

Update on the blanket chest

I've been really enjoying the blanket chest build...here are a few more photos updating the progress

I've moved to hand tools here...cutting joinery for base pieces with my favorite BadAxe saw

I've moved to hand tools here...cutting joinery for base pieces with my favorite BadAxe saw

New Approaches (or, how I work)

I am currently building the Greene and Greene Blanket Chest featured on thewoodwhispererguild.com.

I don't usually "show my work" as I go, but the customer is interested in the process and I'm approaching this project a little bit differently than I normally work, so I thought I'd share some notes about the project as I go, and also talk about how I work

I have designed and built everything in my portfolio by myself. Many of the projects were inspired by other pieces and nearly all were helped along with instructional videos and books from various sources, but I really enjoy the puzzle of making a piece that fits a specific need in a specific space, for a specific person. (which for anyone interested, is not a terribly scalable business model).

In a future post I'll focus more on that part of the work.

Moreover, I typically don't follow a detailed plan. I probably should...I think customers might like to see more detailed drawings with 3D views and all the fancy stuff that even free software now offers. But, typically, I make a pretty good drawing on a sheet of paper that shows the piece from a front, side, and top view. If necessary, I sketch out the joinery or design details on a separate sheet of paper. On the back, I write down the dimensions and joinery notes. As I work, if I need to think through something, rather than turning to a plan, I might just sketch out something on a workpiece or a scrap piece of wood.

Then, I start making sawdust.

With this project, I'm using someone else's design and following the detailed video guidance on the processes. There are multiple ways to complete most operations in the woodshop but Marc over at thewoodwhisperer.com usually provides several and gives a lot of details...can't recommend it highly enough to any woodworkers out there. Thing is, he likes power tools a fair bit more than I do. I have the tools and use them when I need/want to, but I usually prefer to power my tools with donuts and beer (from the night before). So the project is expanding my comfort zone with jigs, pattern bits, and noise in general. That's not to say my handtools are getting rusty (I did a lot of the milling with my planes).

Finally, I'm building in the Greene and Greene style, which is a departure for me. I think the work is beautiful, but it didn't really appeal to me as a style I wanted to explore as a builder until I saw this chest. It involves a lot of detail work (36 ebony plugs, each made individually, on each chest). But that tedious work pays off with some amazing wow factors.

One thing I'm not changing, is my effort to build two of each thing I make whenever it is practical. The advantage of this, as I see it, is that in many cases, making multiples is often very little more work once you are set up and doing an operation (especially when machines are involved). I also see it as an opportunity to get more practice. Sure, there is an upfront cost in terms of milling more wood (and buying it), but a lot of the time involved in the craft is getting your workpiece set up and figuring out the operations. Executing them takes less time and we only get better the more times we do them. Moreover, if you make a mistake on a customer's project, you have spare parts. If you're good (and this has thankfully been the case so far with this policy) you get a piece for yourself or to sell to someone else.

OK, here are some photos on where I am now...more to follow