One of the tools we use about 50 times a day is the “Super Woobie.” It’s basically a microfiber towel that has been absolutely saturated with oil. With it, I wipe down all my tools before putting them away, plus I use it as I work to keep pitch and dust from accumulating on tools.
We’ve experimented with a lot of different rags through the years. And yes, they all work fine. But our favorite – hands-down – are the Norton dry-tack cloths. They hold a lot of oil and dispense just enough when you wipe. You can buy these from a variety of woodworking suppliers.
We decided to ask our Super Woobies to do two jobs: prevent rust and remind us of the value of our work. So we have contracted with a local embroidery firm to stitch “Don’t Despair: Nothing Without Labour” onto one corner, plus the image of a friendly bee – the long-time symbol of woodworkers and other trades.
And we are packaging the woobie in a quality 3mil plastic bag with a zipper. The bag is ideal for the initial oil soaking of your woobie and for storing or transporting it. We don’t like to use plastic packaging, but this is one case where it is ideal.
The Super Woobie will ship dry and ready for the oil of your choice. You can use almost any oil. We like jojoba and camellia oil. Other people like 3-in-1 light machine oil or mineral oil. They all work fine, and yes you can mix them.
We hope to have these up for sale in a month. Right now, Megan and I are prepping the Norton towels for the embroidery shop. I don’t have a retail price yet.
I know this product will cause some eye-rolling in some corners of the internet. And if you’re the kind of person who uses your socks from your 6th-grade gym class to wipe your tools (using only oil harvested from your own body – to save money), then this isn’t for you. I wish you happy wiping.
But for those who like nice things – and nice things imbued with meaning – you might want one.
When you acquire a good tool, such as a block plane, and it really, really works, the tendency is to buy all its friends. After I bought my first No. 5 (about 1996-97), I fell in love with handplanes. To be precise, I loved all the handplanes. Every single handplane ever made or collected or drawn up in some patent document.
Most weekends I’d hit the antique markets with whatever dollars I could scrounge to buy handplanes. What kind of handplanes? All of them. At one time I owned at least 10 smoothing planes, five block planes, six shoulder planes and Justus-Traut-knows-how-many rabbet planes.
This was the start of a dangerous pattern you’ll see throughout this list, which is when I would try to buy my way into a new skill. I thought: If I bought a plow plane, I would be able to make frame-and-panel joints. But that’s not how the craft works.
If I could go back in time, I’d tell myself to buy one No. 5, one No. 3 and one block plane. Then buy additional planes only when I needed them – and after a lot of research.
Reading a Little About Finishing & Sharpening
When I started woodworking, I knew nothing about finishing or sharpening. And so I finished the pieces I made and sharpened the tools I owned in peace and satisfaction. But then one day I started to read about finishing and sharpening, and I realized I had been doing everything wrong.
So I did what the experts said to do, and I became miserable. I refused to put this finish over that finish (the book said it wouldn’t work). I bought some Japanese waterstones. And I entered a long and tortured phase where my finishes and my tools’ edges sucked. I was experimenting too much with this finishing/sharpening system or some other system. I was trying to obey a lot of gurus simultaneously.
To get out of this misery, I had to read a lot more about finishing and sharpening. And I came to the conclusion that I teach today: Learn one system. Stick with it for a long time. Refuse to change until you have mastered that system.
And always refuse to read articles that say “never” and “always.”
Five Planers; Six Table Saws
When it comes to machines and critical hand tools (dovetail saws, block planes, smoothing planes, layout tools), I spent entirely far too much money upgrading my equipment incrementally.
I started out with crap equipment – a plastic table saw and sheet-metal thickness planer, for example. And then I sold the used equipment (it wasn’t worth much) to upgrade to a slightly better table saw and planer. And so on until I ended up where I am today.
It was a dumb and expensive journey for someone who was planning on making furniture for a living all along. I should have just plunked down the $1,200 for a cabinet saw and $800 for a 15” planer in 1996. Instead, I’ve spent at least $7,000 on table saws and $8,000 on planers since then. And I’ve had the agony of buying, selling and setting up all this equipment.
Yes, there’s a chance that you’ll buy a nice $3,000 table saw and then be swayed by the Bare Bosom Goddess of Golf. But that $3,000 table saw can be sold for almost that same amount. Cheap tools, on the other hand, depreciate quickly and to nothing.
Using a Cutting List
Don’t trust someone else’s cutting list. Not from me, Norm Abram or even Jesus the carpenter. Even if the cutting list is accurate (and it’s probably not), you shouldn’t cut all the pieces out to the specified sizes and start building. Things change as you build a project. And the sizes of your parts will change slightly, too.
Make your own cutting list based on a construction drawing. And only cut pieces to final width and length when you absolutely have to.
Cutting lists are dirty liars.
Buying Lumber Sight Unseen
Every time I have bought lumber before laying eyes on it, I have been swindled. The first time this happened was when I ordered 100 board feet of cherry from a reputable supplier to make a bookcase that needed about 40 board feet.
I picked the wood up, and it was so sappy and twisted that I barely squeezed the bookcase out of the 100 board feet. Yes, I complained to the supplier. They laughed in my face and said that sap and twisting was not a defect, and that the lumber met grade. I didn’t buy from them for five years after that – not until they hired a new customer rep.
Reading Tool Catalogs on Friday Night
After I finish work on Friday, I like to drink a beer and relax for a bit before making supper. Sometimes I have two beers. And sometimes I read tool catalogs with that beer in hand. And sometimes I order stupid tools that I don’t need but look pretty cool and now I read nonfiction on Friday evenings.
Don’t drink and shop for tools. That is the only explanation I have for owning an Incra Rule.
Believing the Jig Lie
This is a corollary to the above rule. Tool catalogs are great at explaining how jigs can solve your joinery problems. Can’t cut perfect miters/dovetails/spline joints? This jig does it with ease. You will be a master in no time. Promise.
Here’s what I learned: Cutting miters is a skill. Learning to set up, use and then remember again how to use a jig to cut miters is also a skill. Both skills take about the same amount of time to learn.
Yes, there are some jigs that can speed you along if you need to do something 134 times in a week (such as making a dovetailed drawer). But those jigs are rare and are usually needed only by production or industrial shops.
Most woodworking skills are mastered after a few tries, and then you will forget about owning the jig.
Buying Sets of Tools
Sets of chisels, router bits, carving tools, templates and so on are usually a waste of money. Buying a set seems like a good idea – and you sometimes save a little money compared to buying all the tools separately. But it’s usually a lie.
I use three chisels for 99 percent of my work. Six router bits. Three moulding planes. One sawblade. So buy one good chisel/gouge/router bit/moulding plane – one that you really need. Then, when you absolutely positively can’t work without an additional bit or blade, buy another. Reluctantly. And buy the best you can afford.
Buying the Hardware at the End
I can’t tell you how many times I made this mistake. I built a project and afterward bought the hardware for it. Then had to remake the drawers or doors to suit the hardware.
The hardware typically makes fundamental changes to your cutting lists and drawings. Buy the hardware before you cut the wood.
When I was learning woodworking, I had four teachers, plus the books and magazines I was reading. So I got pulled in a lot of directions. All of the teachers produced good work, but they all had strong ideas about how to go about it.
And so most days I felt like I was a Muslim-Buddhist-Pentcostal-Atheist. There was no consistent instruction in my life. And so it took me a lot of error and error to sort things out. In time, I gained the confidence to go my own way. But it took a lot longer because I had so many masters whispering (or yelling) in my ear.
Pick one person to teach you joinery. Or sharpening. Or finishing. Stick with that person until you have mastered the basics and can start exploring joinery, sharpening and finishing on your own.
Oh, and if you own that little Powermatic 12-1/2” lunchbox planer I sold off in 1998, I’m sorry. I hope you now use it for something it is powerful enough to handle – such as slicing deli meats.
There are so many things that I admire about my spouse, Lucy, that I could easily double the size of this blog by starting a list of them. We’ve been married 29 years, have raised two fiercely intelligent women and I still love spending every waking moment with her.
One of the thousand bonds that we share has been our dedication to front-line work. Neither of us ever wanted to move into management and have remained front-line writers throughout our careers.
Lucy has been a professional journalist at several daily newspapers, a weekly business newspaper and – most recently – as a TV reporter at WCPO-TV here in Cincinnati. While many journalists burn out after about a decade of covering this miserable world, Lucy has been on the front lines for more than 31 years, covering everything from the Kentucky Legislature to crime to difficult issues of homelessness and race.
And this month, Lucy starts a new job as the host of “Cincinnati Edition” on WVXU-FM, our local National Public Radio affiliate in Cincinnati. It’s the perfect job for her. She has been an NPR nerd as long as I’ve known her, and has been a huge booster for WVXU ever since we moved to the Cincinnati area in 1996.
This new position keeps her on the front lines – she’ll have a show five times a week that focuses on local news. And yet it will allow her to use her vast perspective on the city to help listeners make sense of the news. Lucy was born here, grew up here and has long been a fiercely independent journalist. She can get almost any Democrat, Republican or Charterite on the phone for an interview with ease because she has a reputation for fairness, thoughtfulness and (this is odd for a journalist) kindness.
I can’t wait to see what she is going to do.
Why am I telling you this? Because if it weren’t for this woman, we wouldn’t have Lost Art Press. John and I call her “madame president” – and mean it. She packed boxes, sold books and – most of all – said “quit your job” when I wanted to leave Popular Woodworking Magazine and do this stupidness.
So today this blog is for Lucy, who has made the lives of thousands of people – including me – better.
Your biggest fan,
P.S. You can read the “official” story of Lucy’s new job here.
P.P.S. Don’t bother leaving a nasty comment about journalists or NPR. No one will see it.
True story, Word of Honor: Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer now dead, and I were at a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island. I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel to know that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel ‘Catch-22’ has earned in its entire history?” And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.” And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?” And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.” Not bad! Rest in peace!
What do you get for the woman who already owns all the blue fleeces on the planet?
I’m talking, of course, about Megan Fitzpatrick, who celebrated a birthday on Aug. 7. After much thought, I decided to get her something that would indirectly benefit me. You see, Megan is constantly borrowing my beloved old Stanley No. 5, which I have owned since I started woodworking.
I don’t mind her borrowing it, except when I need to use it. My No. 5 is – far and away – the handplane I use the most. I bought it before I knew a lot about handplanes from a stoner at an open-air market. And it was the best $12 I ever spent.
It’s a Type 11 Stanley plane, which means it was likely made between 1910 and 1918. Stanley made tons of these planes – they aren’t rare. But they are spectacular. Rosewood knob and tote. A frog with lots of bearing surface. And – in general – superb fit and finish.
So I decided to get Megan a Type 11 just like mine, and I pieced one together from a good basic plane and some donor parts. But I decided that wasn’t enough. Megan works hard every day to keep me sane at work.
The sidewalls of my No. 5 plane are engraved with the logo for “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest,” which Catharine Kennedy engraved for me about 11 years ago (she is now retired from engraving). For Megan’s plane, I decided to ask Jenny Bower, who both Megan and I admire greatly.
Jenny agreed (yay!), but she was concerned because she hadn’t engraved the particular metals used in the old Stanleys. What if the lever cap didn’t engrave well? She was concerned she might ruin a valuable and old plane.
Then I told her I’d get another lever cap for $10. And I explained how the tool itself – while spectacular – isn’t rare at all. What was going to make the plane special was the engraving.
We received the finished plane this week, and it is better than photos can convey. Jenny is a hand-engraver, and the results are incredibly three-dimensional. If you ever have thought about getting a tool engraved, I recommend her highly. Check out her Instagram feed to see the sort of work she does (and the fun costumes she makes, too).
During the last 11 years, a lot of people have asked questions about my engraved plane. (My favorite: “Isn’t it amazing that you found an old plane that had already been engraved with the logo from your book?”) The most common question people have is: “Why did you get the plane engraved?”
Usually I make a joke at first: “Now it’s a tax write-off.” But the serious answer goes something like this: “My tools are my ticket to work for myself, outside of the corporate world. They mean the world to me. Engraving a common but incredibly useful tool forces people to regard it differently. When I’m gone, I hope a future owner will pick it up at a flea market and understand just how much this common-as-dirt No. 5 meant to its owner.”
Oh, and if you want to read more about Jenny’s journey as an engraver, woodworker and person, check out this Little Acorns profile Nancy Hiller wrote about her.