‘Death Row’ Router Table

While other magazines, books and television shows promise you the “ultimate” router table, it’s only Lost Art Press that dares to show you the “Death Row Router Table.”

Before you watch the video, please endure the following story. And before you comment on this article, read every word of this article.

For the April 2000 issue of Popular Woodworking I wrote a story about the woodworking that is done by death-row inmates. It was a topic that took me more than a year to research and write.

For the most part, death-row inmates aren’t permitted to use machines or many power tools, and yet despite their isolation and the limitations put upon them, they build some amazing things. Imagine if you had limited materials, limited tools but (nearly) unlimited time.

That is why the story really interested me – it was a story about woodworking that occurs in some of the most unlikely places.

But you can’t write about anything dealing with the death penalty and avoid controversy. My story never took a stand on the death penalty and didn’t make the subjects out to be particularly sympathetic – I made sure to mention their crimes in the story. Yet, several readers cancelled their subscriptions – one reader even taped the pages of that story together so that he would never encounter it again.

And my boss at the time has said several times in public that we shouldn’t have published that story. I disagree with him. But that’s not why I’m telling you this story.

During my reporting I went down to visit Kentucky’s death row at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville, Ky., and take some photos of the woodwork of the inmates. It was my first visit to a death row and as you can imagine, it was pretty spooky. The Eddyville facility is on Lake Barkley and looks like a foreboding castle overlooking a gorgeous river.

The warden of the prison, like all corrections officials I’ve dealt with in my career, was as open and as hospitable as possible. He gave us a lengthy tour of the facility, let us take as many photos as I liked and showed us an amazing display of prisoner-made weapons they had confiscated.

The most incredible thing about the weapons was how often little bits of woodworking equipment were used in making shanks – red clamp handles were a common handle. Jigsaw blades were a common blade.

During our tour, the Eddyville officers showed us the woodworking shop, where the prisoners made furniture for state offices and to learn a skill. And that’s where I saw this “router table.”

Note that the death row inmates weren’t allowed into the woodworking shop, so calling this a “death row” router table is completely disingenuous – just like every other router table story ever published. But this router table was the only thing the prisoners used – both for pattern-routing and for edge-forming.

I thought it was quite ingenious.

Note that I’m not advocating you do this in your shop. The safety police will come to your house and de-louse you and then take your router away forever. And if the safety nannies post comments here on this router table, I’m going to delete them – so be forewarned.

I am presenting this video as a nearly lost art and a document of how woodworking is done behind bars because it is interesting. I am not glorifying criminals. I’m not telling you to do something unsafe – no more than stories about airplane crashes encourage more airplane crashes.

— Christopher Schwarz

About lostartpress

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
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48 Responses to ‘Death Row’ Router Table

  1. billlattpa says:

    I’m always on the lookout for a shank with a nicely turned handle.

  2. tjic (@tjic) says:

    Wonderful story.

    On the other hand, my down stream sphincter isn’t going to unclench for about a WEEK after watching that inverted router.

  3. curt Seeliger says:

    Darn it, now I’ll have to tape my monitors together so I don’t have to see this again.

  4. michael says:

    Let me guess, their table saw was a skill saw mounted in the vice – don’t even bother making a video of that – you will loose all the respecvt you ahve thus far generated.

  5. Dean in Des Moines says:

    This just underscores the benefits of clean living. Please don’t attempt this with a palm router. I just couldn’t watch.

  6. Eric R says:

    What’s wrong with that? It worked, didn’t it?! haha
    (You just gave a massive heart attack to all those guys who manufacture those $1,000.00 router tables…..)

  7. Jason says:

    As one might expect, the story is more interesting than the fixture (honestly, how could it not be?). That’s a pretty common way to use a router on a job site, except in this instance it was better secured. Do any sort of commercial carpentry or house fitting for any length of time and you’ll see some crazy things done with power tools. Some might say stupid, but when you’re trading sawdust for cash things are done in the most expeditious way possible. As Mike Rowe observed, “Safety third”.

  8. Marilyn says:

    Fascinating! I’ve heard rumors of homes for the elderly that have wood working shops (I’ve gotta find one of those and get on the waiting list). This story reminds me of the time that my parents took us to the Texas Prison Rodeo when we were kids.

    My parents didn’t realize that one of the rodeo events was to tie a money bag to the horns of a bull and set the prisoners loose to get the money. We only went once, but I still remember it. Watching the video of the death row router table reminded me of how I felt watching those guys try to out smart those bulls.

  9. Chris says:

    Chris, thank you for the wonderful story and demonstration, but as a favor to your many fans, please get a router table. I can’t believe you made your Dutch chest handles, which are striking, using this method. Watching your fingers move so close to the spinning router bit was like watching the movie “Alien.” Pure dread at the thought of the mayhem that could happen.

  10. Ron Kanter says:

    Good for you, Chris.
    Two valid goals of woodworking journalism are to show alternative methods of work and to provide examples of doing more with less. As you said, these guys are severely restricted in access to tools. Their response may not be OSHA approved, but they get the job done. This is not a debate about the US criminal justice system.
    My favorite example of prisoner innovation is a shoe box with a light bulb in it used as a warming oven for packaged cakes and snacks. That was seen on Death Row in Tennessee. Anyone who has ever visited a maximum security prison will never complain about cramped shop space.
    Ron

  11. psanow says:

    It’s a shame so many people don’t understand the job of a journalist is to tell the stories people won’t hear otherwise. It doesn’t mean you sympathize, empathize or in any way endorse the story or the people. Everyone has a story to be told, and it’s up to me as a reader to form my opinions – not shoot (or stab with a shank) the messenger. Thanks Chris for telling the story.

  12. bobbollin says:

    A couple of V-notched boards would have helped support the router more firmly in the vise!! Other than that, it looks like a practical solution to a complex problem.

    I know, I know. I’m a safety idiot.

    I have built a big, spendy router table…but this basically performs the same functions. I wouldn’t want to use this invention myself, but then I’m not in prison!

  13. Jeremiah R says:

    Interesting indeed. Now I need to see if I can get a back issue of April, 2000 and read that article. The various ways woodworking is done in all corners of the earth fascinates me. In my younger days as a Marine in Iraq, it was always interesting to see the various chairs and card tables that were made from discarded ammo cases. They weren’t fine furniture by any stretch of the imagination, but they were functional.

  14. Well now I know I am a mo’ron.
    I don’t use my router too often, but other than the vice, that’s pretty much how I do things.
    Is the issue the vice, or the fence applications?
    Or both…?

  15. Jay C. White Cloud says:

    Chris,

    I love it…this is what I call power tool application at it’s best. Have, will and continue to do these kinds of things in my shop and on job sites all the time. First thing I did went I got my first “sawmill,” take off all the guards, so I could see things running. Like any tool, there is a place to put the wood and not your hand, it isn’t that complicated.

    Regards,

    Jay

    • Kim A Howarter says:

      And OSHA came to the plant that I work at and identified all the guards that we needed to add to our equipment, most of which never had any guards like they said we needed. This was in addition to all of the existing guards that we had and they even required us to pay them.
      I try real hard to find ways to not use my router and related table.

  16. Martin says:

    There was a show on I believe DIY network with 2 brothers, one a serious builder and the other for comic relief. The name escapes me, but I saw this fool clamp his router upside down much like this. I couldn’t believe they actually showed this!

  17. tpobrienjr says:

    I have a good friend whose son has been on Death Row for over 10 years. If he had learned some woodworking skills he might not be there. Sad.

  18. brad grubb says:

    Nice poor kids router table ,but I lust drop my 692 between 2 saw horses and clamp the whole thing together ,that was my router table for a long time minus the index pin. The first commercial shop i worked in had no router table to speak of so I dazzled the fellas with my jorgie clamp then clamped to the bench router table, hurt me a few times but always got the job done.

    don’t loose a finger
    BG

  19. johnhippe says:

    Thanks for a great article — both about woodworking by prisoners and for the demonstration of the “router table.” I appreciate being exposed to different ideas and seeing the resoursefullness of people. Thanks also for not being constrained by what the safety weenies tell us what we can and cannot do…

  20. John Cashman says:

    Thirty years ago, my first “real” router was a Makita with a rectangular base. It was perfect for mounting upside down in a tail vise, and because of the shape of the base, it was very secure, and could be made flush with the top of the workbench, making a very large router table.

  21. Eric Bennett says:

    The Ohio Tool Company used prison labor from the Ohio State Penitentiary from 1841 to 1880. Seems to me that the demise of Shop Class contributes to crime (though my uncle famously made a working zip gun in junior high).
    My relative sobriety is maintained by a mental picture of myself in the E.R. with fingers in a baggie. I’d worry if the video had brown bottles in the background.
    A Philippine co-worker told me about cabinet makers coming to his grandmother’s home and banding a live tree (removing the bark to kill it) so they could build kitchen cabinets the following month. He laughed that they spent the first two hours each morning – sharpening.
    Sometimes I wonder why the woodworking community seems so… white, male, over forty and suburban. I’d love to see more stories that venture off the beaten path.
    I’m all over the place, time for my meds.

  22. Tom Dickey says:

    If you run scared from that you will never make it on a job site. We would not have even used the starting pin. Probably would have clamped the board down and not the router. But I have done and seen done much more scary things than that. I am more afraid of dropping a good chisel on concrete more than a router.

  23. SteveR says:

    At the end of the day, isn’t that all a router table is?

  24. Sam I Am says:

    “Necessity is the mother of invention”… Just sayin’…

    Oh, I don’t own a router or said table.

    Looking forward to Don’s book on the Studley tool chest, will it be a LAP publication?

  25. Brian O. says:

    I too have done this a time or two and still have all my digits. In fact, the front-vise on my Frank Klausz/Tage Frid style bench is practically made to hold a router upside down. I have also screwed a temporary plywood base on the router in place of the phenolic base and then clamped the plywood to workbench cantilevered out into space.

    Happy New Year!

  26. Scott Meek says:

    I really don’t see the problem here. Have you actually had to delete comments about safety? A fancy router table is just a way to hold a router upside down. In fact, I just made my own from some scrap pieces of plywood. Works fine. This just has a smaller “table” and fence. Is it the screw for a starting pin? All the current fancy tables have the option for a starting pin. One can injure themselves just as easily using this method, or one of those $1000 dollar tables. I’m glad that you work for yourself now Chris, so that you can post videos like this, despite what a bunch of whiners will say about it.

  27. Now if they had removed the screw, clamped the part to the bench, and went around it with the router bit with the nifty little pilot bearing, the power tool community would applaud and we wouldn’t be all up in arms.
    Field expedient fixes are often very common and less safe.

  28. dzj says:

    Perhaps you might consider writing a Thanatos/Eros sequel….woodworking in a cathouse.

  29. hickmanish says:

    I love this stuff. I have a buddy who has to get creative with his tools as well. He has a table that he can drop an inverted circular saw into for an instant TS. The rest of the time it’s a laundry folding table. He uses a zip tie on the trigger and a sewing machine pedal as an on/off switch. His kids also have Harry Potter-esque wands turned on a lathe that was cobbled together from a drill and some screw-down metal strap. Of course, the lathe chisel was a sharpened screwdriver.

  30. J.Tyson says:

    Yup, I’ve done precisely that. Well, not precisely. I didn’t use the starting pin.

  31. bsrlee says:

    Only blood shed accident I’ve had with a router was using a commercial router table and fence – cutter hit a hidden knot, jammed & forced the fence back so the bit came thru the side of the job & into my finger tip. You can feel each bite the bit takes, and it was amusing convincing the nurse that I couldn’t have brought in the missing bit of skin to sew back on, as it was a mist all over the yard. There was hardly any sign of the damage after a few weeks, just light colored patch when the weather is cold.

    On the other hand, I’ve so far failed to damage myself using tools ‘other than as the manufacturer intended’, maybe the excitement improves my reaction time.

  32. Matt says:

    What I think is the saddest part of the story is the fact that I have done this myself :(….

  33. sawdustmaker says:

    The people who canceled their subscriptions or had other knee jerk reactions clearly suffer from the well known disease Rectal Cranium Immersion. That was a wonderful story about adaptation and innovation. You did the correct thing by running the story. And, Thanks for sharing it here

  34. Thought this might be relevant-for many years we have dealt with many inmates involved with Hobbycraft-which is a work skills program within the New Hampshire prison system. I am sure these guys are minimum security inmates-nothing as serious as death row-but it is quite the program. Hobbycraft teaches real world work skills to their inmates-they have a print shop, woodworking program, and other programs as well.

    Anyway, some of these guys produce some masterpieces. If you’re interested I would encourage you to look follow the link and look at Eric Grant’s piece. http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151453514609478&set=pb.208193674477.-2207520000.1357146580&type=3&theater

    Full disclosure-This is a link to Horton Brasses Facebook page-Eric was kind enough to send us some pics of this secretary desk.

  35. Curt says:

    I’ve done the same thing before. If your router is clamped securely it’s no different than a router table. As long as you have a fence or starting pin you are just as capable of getting a job done safely and effectively as with a proper table.

    For those of you that may be frightened at having your fingers too close to the cutter then make a new router base with 1/8″ plastic 12″x12″ so that you have a larger working surface. It would also make it easier to clamp on a fence. If you don’t have the space, money or frequent need for a router table I think that’s a great alternative.

  36. burbidge says:

    All I can add is that my two year old just watched this with me, and said, ‘Grandpa Ted’s’… Yes, a retired engineer who has never been on death row, still lives on the wild-side!
    ps. he’s only lost parts of fingers to a planer…

  37. Chris R. says:

    I definately wouldnt try this while jumping on a trampoline.

  38. Ben Kamp says:

    Wow didn’t know that this could blow minds… I do this all the time at work, just substitue the vice with your thighs. thie first time I had to do this I asked my boss if I should do this on the router table and my boss promply flipped the router in my hands upsidown and simply said “there’s your router table, nut- up.”

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