On Drinking & Woodworking

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It’s no secret that I like beer. So I get asked by students occasionally: Do you drink while you are in the shop? The answer?

Absolutely, yes.

Now, before you read another word, know that I am not an uptight or judgmental person by nature. Plus, I want to live a long life with all my natural-born fingers attached to my hands – not sitting in mason jars on the mantlepiece.

Now the “correct” answer is to never ever touch a woodworking tool if you have even seen a beer commercial on television. Jamais! Nicht! Etc.! Historically, we know this teetotaler approach is new. Craftsmen of all trades drank all the time in the shop. There are so many accounts of drinking in shops from the 18th until the early 20th centuries that it’s weird to find an early account of a shop where people didn’t drink.

The drink was likely lower in alcohol than what we consume today. But judging from the quantities listed in historical accounts, we are all on the same historical Breathalyzer.

So what is a reasonable approach? Can you have a beer in the shop in Saturday afternoon?

Here’s my thinking, which has been developed during the last 20 years by doing stupid things (a bottle of wine and a lathe do not mix) and finding my limits.

If I have had any alcohol in the last few hours, I won’t turn on machinery. OK, I might turn on a shop vacuum. But I’m not going to mess with cutting tools.

If I have had one beer, all hand-tool operations are go. I’ll saw, plane and chisel to my heart’s content. By the way, I don’t feel anything after one beer, but I’m 6’3” and 180 pounds.

If I have had two beers or less, I’ll do donkey work. That means I’ll do some handplaning, maybe some rough sawing. But I won’t cut joinery and I definitely avoid the chisels, which are the single-most dangerous hand tools in the shop.

After three beers, I’ll clean the shop – there are very few broom injuries reported to the federal government. I put away tools. I oil stuff. Or I’ll stare at my work in progress and make notes. As a writer, I appreciate the effect that alcohol has on the creative process – do not discount it. Alcohol removes inhibitions, and sometimes that’s what I need when I stare at a work in progress. I need to decide: This stinks. Or, this needs radical surgery.

I rarely drink more than three beers in a night, unless things are going really well or really poorly. Then I sit down with the laptop and write a blog entry, which may or may not get published the next day.

So that’s the truth. You might disagree with my approach, but all I can do is repeat the following quote from one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century: “Lighten up, Francis.”

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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47 Responses to On Drinking & Woodworking

  1. stonedahls says:

    I’m with ya!

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  2. ctyankeewoodworker says:

    Sounds like a perfectly happy but prudent approach to me–though, when you say you “don’t feel anything” after your first beer, I’m assuming you don’t mean that you don’t feel anything . . .

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  3. abtuser says:

    Totally. Nothing like an Abby ale (with a bourbony finish) and some hand-planing.

    (I do have a ‘two-beers, two-and a half hour later chiseling, two stitches’ chisel-gone-wild scar to confirm the chisel danger. Two and a half hour wait time…shoulda been safe…nope.)

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  4. Been sweeping the shop today, haven’t you?

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  5. “If you can’t do your job after a beer or two you weren’t all that good at it in the first place”.

    Cardio thoracic surgeon I worked with long ago … retired I believe … or rehab??

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  6. Wes Beal says:

    I’m just not that responsible. Most important tool in my shop is a bottle of bourbon. Anytime I’m facing off against a new technique or a used tool recently acquired, I lubricate with the bourbon until it seems like a good idea. Worked wonders on this old circular saw my neighbor found in a basement. Also came to the rescue when I bought a used lathe – I’d never used a lathe before, so didn’t really know what I was doing. The first dovetail I cut in a decent piece of wood: bourbon made it possible. All I’ve got to do in these situations is apply the bourbon, sparingly or judiciously as the task demands, and the crippling hesitations I’m prone to suffer from due to worrying about my lack of experience, or lack of knowledge, or suspect condition of parts and motors disappears and I’m off to work.

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  7. Ryan Starkey says:

    My best times in the wood shop included sipping a Heady Topper IPA. (It’s hard to cut off a finger with a handsaw.) Nice picture of a hold-fast by the way, excellent way to keep a beer from getting knocked off the bench.

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  8. imaginer06 says:

    I agree with everything except that I didn’t think you were as tall as I am. Maybe it was you longer hair at the time….

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  9. toolnut says:

    My tolerance for alcohol is no where near what it was when I was younger. I can feel one drink now, so I don’t mix it with tools. Besides, if I have any kind of beverage (hot or cold) in the shop, I inevitably will forget where I put it, especially if I get busy. That usually means my cold drink got warm and my hot drink got cold. I found a mug of coffee once in the shop that would have made a nice science experiment. It was a mug I’d been looking for for days and couldn’t for the life of me remember where I put it. It was on a shelf in the closet with the light bulbs. (Found it when the next bulb went.)

    So I put my time in the shop, work up a good thirst and then pop a cold one. And I do love beer when I’m thirsty. (Guiness)

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  10. jkelley01 says:

    The best post and the best photo of the year! Of course, I had a Scotch in my hand as I read the newest email. BTW, my dog’s name is Guinness.

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  11. The beer that was drunk by workers in the past was “small beer” with little or no alcohol. It was drunk by everyone including children in place of water. The brewing process made it a safer drink than water which was usually unsanitary.

    In the 19th century drink was considered the curse of the working class, but in your situation work seems to be the curse of the drinking class.

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  12. Well, when you consider that in the 17th and 18th centuries, drinking water could kill you…

    Everyone drank beer. Man, woman and child. In fact it was an important part of their diet. Yes they drank beer in the shop. And with breakfast, and dinner, and supper, and the rest of the day. Every day. So you’re in good company 🍻.

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  13. kendewitt608 says:

    As i am having a single malt now I will stay away from the old clock I am re building for my electrician.
    Makes me think of Jim Aubry who ran CBS, his salesmen had to drink Gin at lunch, no vodka.
    He said I want the client to know you are drunk and not think you are stupid !

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  14. Thomas Scott says:

    Hey Chris,

    Your litany of what can happen happen after how many drinks, brings to mind Dorthy Parker’s poem:

    One martini is grand,
    two at the very most.
    Three I’m under the table,
    but four, I’m under the host.

    Cheers,
    Tom

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  15. Daniel Roy says:

    Chris likes good food and he likes to cook. 6’3″ and only 180 lbs? Either he’s not a good cook or he’s working it off in the shop!

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  16. Chris, I want you to know, if we ever get into any really heavy mortising, I’ll be right behind you, every step of the way.

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  17. Tim Aldrich says:

    The best dovetails I’ve done were cranked out while two sheets to the wind with the third on it’s way up. No power tools, though. I’m crazy, not stupid.

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  18. Dave Hart says:

    … or I’ll stop woodworking and start getting out my brewing equipment as I’m probably critically low on homebrew.

    Prost!

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  19. Rachael Boyd says:

    when I am in the shop I don’t have time to drink to much. I will take a very hoppy beer with me but I don’t drink it fast enough to do any harm. but I don’t use any power tools ether …..

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  20. stevevoigt says:

    You forgot:
    After #4 — put away planes and start random orbital sanding everything.
    After #5 — drunk dial Raney and have a screaming argument about waterstones.
    After #6 — head to liquor store for another six pack…

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  21. tsstahl says:

    I’ve always had more tolerance than money. Shop + beer just isn’t issue here. 🙂

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  22. madwelder says:

    I believe that Hemingway said to write drunk but edit sober.

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  23. misterlinn says:

    Oh I’m so jealous. I used to enjoy all real ales without much care. As long as I didn’t drive, fly or go in the workshop – yes, I had a zero alcohol rule because of the type of things I used to do when under the affluence of incohol. I say “used to do” and “I’m jealous” because now I’m diabetic. Probably all the real ale. Anyway, I keep it in remission by a diet called “nutritional ketosis”. Atkins to you and me. Works very, very well. Been “cured” for over two years now; no drugs. Unfortunately, more than one or two less-than-4% beers makes me ill. Something to do with the liver. Always a bloody downside with everything good.

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  24. Matt Rae says:

    I always find the big problem with drinking and woodworking is that I end up rushing things along. I think I should put myself on a no glue after one beer rule.

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  25. James Mayes says:

    Come and teach a class here in Missoula, MT and I’ll personally buy you a Moose Drool or Cold Smoke Scotch ale!!

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  26. I agree with all the above. 🙂

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  27. and here I am getting all excited about not having a single drop of alcohol in a year (on friday)….As an apprentice, one of the independent workers would send me to get a six pack for him around 10am. He would chug beers and smoke with a buddy while telling me I was doing things the wrong way, in the meantime my boss was out with clients drinking and playing golf. I hope I never turn into any of them.

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  28. You can always count on your big toe for good advice.

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  29. Ben Lowery says:

    An addendum: never drink whiskey while finishing. Too easy to mix them up. Shellac and Everclear are the best route.

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