Recipe for contentment
A small shop, a stack of lumber, the fragrance of wood in the air.
I've spent a lot of time looking for and reading online tool reviews, and I often find myself wishing there were more personal reviews by amateur woodworkers around, so here are mine. These aren't reviews in the sense of comparing several of the same tool; rather, I'm just sharing some thoughts about the tools I appreciate using: Woodworking tool reviews.
A passionate weekend woodworker
I love wood above all other materials, and I love simplicity and quality. The few times I've wandered into furniture stores I've either had an allergic reaction to the shoddiness of manufacturing in evidence or just plain sticker shock, so in most cases I've opted to make my own simple stuff. Because I love books, much of what I've made has been bookshelves. I also love shoji lamps and polyhedron shapes, so that's been another focus. And I've made a variety of other things: desks, end tables, book stands, bed platforms, a large oak cabinet for my sweetheart's business (she's an herbalist and hand makes a line of natural skin care products called Wild Sage Botanicals), and so on.
I've tried a lot of different tools over the years. One lesson I learned—unfortunately the hard way—is to always buy quality tools if possible, even if they cost far more than cheaper versions. Sometimes I've really had to stretch to buy some of my tools, but I've never regretted it. Quality tools provide two things that cheap tools often don't: accuracy and longevity. In some cases, they're also safer. And it's simply a pleasure to hold and use a tool that has been designed and made with care.
On the other hand, tools are just tools
While I think buying quality tools is a good idea, I don't think a lack of quality tools should stop anyone who is interested in woodworking (it didn't stop me when I was getting started). Quality tools make it easier to do good work, but they don't make it possible to do good work. That comes from desire and practice.
When I lived in India 20 years ago, I watched barefoot woodworkers who had only a few shoddy hand tools sit on the ground and turn a pile of rough-sawn rosewood into beautiful and precise window casings. It took them a really long time (weeks to do the store front I watched them do), but they were obviously practiced at their craft and could do things with their poor hand tools that I still struggle to accomplish with an indoor shop, a workbench, and quality power tools.
An interesting mix of tools
My collection of tools is a bit unusual. My hobby for many years has been making shoji lamps. This requires a lot of small hand tools—micro clamps, small hand saws, a hand miter saw, mini sanders, and so on—as well as some power tools like a band saw, planer, miniature drills, and a palm sander.
Here's an older series of photos showing a lamp making project using these tools.
In 1999, we purchased a beautiful piece of property that came with a beat up house needing full remodeling.
Having grown up with a hammer in my hand in a house that my father remodeled as we lived in it, I already knew a lot of the necessary skills, but needed to get an additional set of tools to work on the house and build some of the furniture for it, such as circular, table, and electric miter saws, bigger sanders, routers, and so on.
Here's a newer series of photos showing a furniture making project using these tools.
Recently, I've been preparing to do cabinetry work, so I've added some bigger tools: a cabinet saw, a larger bandsaw, a drill press, a dust collector, and a small jointer so that I can handle rough sawn wood (there are a couple nearby places that specialize in local woods that I'd like to take advantage of, including TC Woods in Lafayette, which specializes in beautiful salvaged woods).
Finally, though I love using power tools, I've begun acquiring more hand tools, hoping that someday I'll have more time to spare and can slow down a bit to explore working by hand more.
Finding tools is a challenge, especially living in a somewhat rural area as we do. We have a wonderful local hardware store, but I often have to reach beyond it to find exactly what I'm looking for. The most delightful outcome of my online explorations has been finding a handful of individual craftspeople and small businesses who are making incredible tools; I've also stumbled across some good general online tool sources: Sources.
Being an avid reader and having an incurable stubborn streak that manifests in a determination to teach myself everything, I often turn to reading to glean clues about how to proceed. In my quest to learn woodworking I've come across some wonderful books and woodworking-related websites (as well as a few DVDs) that contain a wealth of knowledge: Learning woodworking.
Looking forward to weekends
I'm finally returning to my hobby of making shoji lamps, which I set aside for several years to focus on remodeling our home and making furniture for it. This is a fairly significant milestone in my life, a good time to take a step back and think about where my journey has brought me: Is it worth it?
A glimpse of my current woodworking project
This week I began working on a project I've looked forward to (and slightly feared, because it will stretch the limits of my capabilities) for perhaps seven years, ever since I first conceived the idea: a lamp in the shape of a rhombicosidodecahedron, a polyhedron made up of triangles, squares, and pentagons. I forced myself to put the project on hold so that I could focus on remodeling and making furniture for our home, but the time has finally come when I can play around a bit.
There were many weekends of preparation work before I got to the point of these first photos: planing the maple that will make up the frame (because of the different angles between the pieces, the frame's triangles are slightly thicker than the squares and pentagons), initial sanding, cutting the strips on the table saw and bandsaw (the bandsaw for the angled edge), routing the rabbet into which the kumiko (the ¼″ × ¼″ inner frame that will hold the washi or rice paper) will fit, and then a second sanding. The frame requires 100 feet of these rabbeted strips.
In the following photo, you can see the finished frame stock for the 12 pentagons and 30 squares (by the time I took this photo, I had already finished gluing up the 20 triangles, which you can see stacked behind my glue bottle). Of course, I spent some time tidying up before I took this photo; my workbench is typically in a state of chaos during assembly!
Next I created a gluing jig for the three components: triangle, square, and pentagon. I used ordinary prefinished pressboard shelving as the base because the finish is a kind of plastic that glue doesn't stick to. Then I made reference shapes out of basswood, in this case 5″ on a side. Finally I screwed down maple holders for the three shapes, leaving gaps at the endpoints where the glue squeezes out.
In the following photo, you can see a closeup of my gluing jig, with one of each shape drying. I dry them long enough so that they won't separate, then pry the pieces out of the jig holders, and use a scraper and a sharp punch to scrape away any glue squeeze out. When they are completely dry, I sand them with my palm sander, which provides an initial glue joint strength test.
Here's the first assembled section. It's much more difficult than I had hoped it would be … or perhaps I should say that it is as difficult as I had feared. As much as I try to make perfect cuts and glue up perfect shapes, everything is always a little imprecise, and those imprecisions magnify quickly in a complex shape like this.
Still, it's encouraging to have gotten this far. I always despair a bit mid-project, thinking I'll never be able to successfully pull it off. But having been able to glue up a complete section means that there is at least the possibility that I'll be able to create a complete frame.
For more information about the idea behind this lamp, see the On my workbench pages of the Shoji lamps and side journeys section of my site.
A few weekends later … Finally had an opportunity to spend a few more hours in my shop (yes, work and life have been intense lately!). Thought I'd share a few more photos that share both the messy intensity that occurs during assembly—when the glue is dripping, it's all clamps on deck, and even my palm sander has been pressed into duty as a counterweight— and the more tranquil aftermath.
Then, after the chaos of assembly, harmony and order are restored to the benchtop.
Passed the halfway mark on the lamp body today: 6 of 12 pentagons, 12 of 20 triangles and 15 of 30 squares. Maybe just maybe this thing is going to turn out okay. If it does, it's going to be a nice size for a standing lamp, 22″ in diameter.
One of the tools that is proving itself invaluable on this project is the Ridgid Oscillating Spindle Sander. The tilting table lets me make fine adjustments to the edges, and it's really easy to control my passes so that I can take off very fine amounts.
Last weekend I hit an impasse. I was at the stage where the polyhedron was beginning to curve inward, and that's when the small imprecisions really caught up with me. I got to the point where I needed to glue in the final square between two pentagons in the top belt of shapes (the triangle and two squares beneath that square were also open), and everything was out of whack.
I'm now pretty sure that the dihedral angles I cut were a bit too shallow. This shape demands a precision measured in hundredths of a degree, which I could only approximate with the tools I had at the time, and since I cut all the dihedral angles using the same setting, my imprecision was magnified by the numbers of joints involved.
I ran big clamps from one side of the sphere to the other to try to pull the square and the pentagon into alignment. It seemed to be working when suddenly the leg of the pentagon glued to the square and the one along the top broke away from the rest of the pentagon, and there was no way I could think of to use clamps to pull everything back together again.
I felt fairly distraught and thought I should abandon this iteration of the project, start over, and try to achieve more precise dihedral angles using the Bridge City Toolworks AngleMaster Pro I recently acquired. But it was quite disconcerting to walk away from the work of many months of weekends that I had already put into this lamp. Garima and I were going to take a hike that afternoon, so I decided to get out in nature, clear my mind of the swirling emotions, and make my final decision upon return.
While sitting on the shore of the reservoir, I lost myself in the beauty caused by the interplay of the sun, sand, reflections, and the crosshatching patterns of ripples from the shifting breeze.
In that gap, an idea popped into my mind: to use my picture frame strap clamps to try to pull the shape into alignment. I had purchased two of these clamps years ago, but had only ever used one of them. At times I had wondered if I'd been totally foolish to get and hold onto a second one, but it proved to be the answer to my dilemma this time. The lamp pulled into alignment and, with the addition of some spreader clamps inside, held in place until the glue dried properly. Now I'm fairly certain I'll be able to complete the polyhedron.
That said, I'm certainly not as happy with this project as I have been with others; too many of the joints aren't perfect, and I'm having to force things together. As imperfect as it is, though, it still may turn out good enough for a lamp in our living room, and this has been a very good, if somewhat painful, learning experience. If I ever create another one of these, I have several ideas for better ways to proceed, for example, instead of building the sphere up from the bottom, I'd create circumference bands running along the XYZ axes, and then fill in the remaining sections. I think that approach combined with more accurate angles would minimize the cumulative impact of imperfections.
Spent most of today in my shop, and what a day it was! The first aha! moment came when I began to close the top of the lamp. After the near failure of the previous weekend, it was a moment of giddiness.
It took some custom fitting, but by late afternoon I enjoyed the satisfaction of gluing in the last triangle. Then an hour or so of sanding, and the lamp body was finished. Of course, this is just the first step, and it will take many more months of weekends before this lamp is standing in our living room, but I think I'll take some time off this evening to savor the moment.