Saturday, March 29, 2014

Consumerism, or, A Tale of Two Squares

I received an ad via email this morning for the Woodpecker 12" Square.

It looks like a fantastic tool:  it's got a 12" blade and an 8" handle, the blade and part of the handle are machined from one block of aluminum, and the remainder of the handle consists of more machined aluminum slipped onto reference pins.  It should stay square forever unless you beat on it with a hammer, and it's guaranteed to 0.001" accuracy.

Then I looked at the price.  $99.99, for a square.  yes, it's an accurate square, and yes, it's almost certainly well made, but still.... a hundred bucks for a square?

Let's look at an alternative, which happens to be the same brand as my 16" and 6" squares.  It's a combination square, made by Empire Level.  it has a 12" blade, although the equivalent of the Woodpecker's handle is only about 4" long.  It, too, is guaranteed to 0.001" accuracy over its length.  It costs about $15, or about 1/7th of what the Woodpecker costs.

Now:  The Woodpecker tool has some advantages.  First, the rule starts measuring at the edge of the board, not at the end of the blade, which means measuring with it is easier.  Second, it's been designed to be a little easier to hold.  Finally, it has a much larger registration surface, so it will be easier to keep it where it ought to be.  All of those, particularly the last one, are valuable, and if cost were no object I'd probably buy one of each.

But...well, most of us have budget limitations.  As I mentioned, I have one of the Empire squares in a 16" size.  It's a little awkward at its full length, which probably extends about 13" from the board edge, but I've used it a number of times at that width with no real problem.  It's accurate, it's repeatable, and it's cheap.  For my money, it's easily a fair trade off.  Here's a case -- one of the few cases, probably -- where you can easily go cheap, and not have to worry about giving up accuracy, quality, or longevity.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Woodworking and the Joy of Acquisition

The scene:  A small room, with a circle of people in uncomfortable chairs.  A group moderator stands up.

"Well, we have someone new with us today.  Why don't you introduce yourself?"

"Hi.  I'm Andy, and I have a problem.  I'm a tool collector."

The crowd replies, and then the moderator speaks again:
"Hi, Andy."
"Welcome.  And as you know, the first step is admitting that you have a problem."

Ok, I'll stop now.  But I'm starting to feel like I have a problem.  Here's the thing:  I can't see a new hand tool without wanting it.  Fancy molding planes.  Sets of hollows and rounds.  Saws both fancy and plain.  Smoothers, jointers, toothing planes, even antique screwdrivers!

But you know what?  I have enough tools.  Here's the list of what I need to make it possible to do everything I want to do:

1) A plow plane.  Yeah, I can do the work with a saw and chisel, but not and quickly or accurately.

2) Some more bits for my brace.  Many of the ones I have are in rough shape, and I'm missing some sizes I actually have a use for, like a #12. (3/4")

3) A dovetail saw.  I don't actually have a good backsaw of any variety, but everything I want to do could be handled by a ~14TPI dovetail saw, hand-filed rip.

That's it.  That's all I NEED.  Oh, don't get me wrong... there are other things that would make my life easier.  It'd be nice to have more than one marking gauge, and using a Stanley utility knife for marking is getting kind of old.  But here's what I have regularly and use:

1) Three hand planes.  It will be four, but I haven't got the last one cleaned up.  I have a #4 smoother, a #5 jack with a straight edged iron, and an old transitional try plane most likely made by Siegley.  The fourth is another #5, in much rougher shape, that will have a curved iron and be a dedicated stock removal plane.

2) Two hand saws.  One is a Disston rip saw, roughly 5TPI.  It rips 3/4" stock beautifully, and anything thicker is also fine.  The second is a cheap Shark Ryoba, which I use for cross-cutting, ripping small thin pieces, and cutting dovetails.  I also have a little gents saw that I use if the ryoba is too large, but it doesn't see much use.

4) A set of Wood River bench chisels.  They pare, the cut mortises, they do everything I want a chisel to do.

5) A set of card scrapers.  Every once in a while they're really useful.

6) A good brace, and a couple of usable bits.  The brace drills holes, drives screws, and generally makes things turn when they're supposed to.  Also, an old egg-beater style drill and a lot of bits.

7) A few things for making straight lines.  Two old wood and steel try squares, and a pair of modern mid-quality combination squares.

8) Some basics:  a mallet, a hammer, a tape measure for rough measurements, a couple of pencils, a utility knife for marking things, a marking gauge, little stuff like that.

That's it.  That's what I need.  I probably spent $150 on the tools I actually need.  A good plow plane may run me another $150.  If I can find a decent dovetail saw for under $50, I'll probably buy it and be grateful.  Call it $400-450, max cost for NEEDED tools.

And yet... I have a pile of other saws, and some of them may see some use some day.  I'm looking forward to restoring the panel saws, since they'll fit better in a portable tool box.  I have a Stanley #3 plane that I may get around to restoring sooner or later.  It doesn't need much.  I've got knives, drills, hammers, and mallets that I never touch.  I have three more braces, and I've never used any of them.

And I'm not the only one.  I'm not alone.  Woodworkers, especially hand tool workers, seem to have a driving urge to acquire MORE TOOLS.  We can't pass a flea market without looking for something to buy.

So why is it?

I have some theories.

1) We live in a consumer culture.  Our entire lives we're told that we need to buy, buy, buy.  If you're not accumulating new things, you're LOSING.  "He who dies with the most toys wins," right?  Well, maybe.

2) We subscribe to woodworking magazines.  Don't get me wrong, I love my magazines.  But... have you ever noticed that each review of a new tool talks about all the things you can do with it that you can't do without it?  So we're convinced that the tools we have won't do the job, and that we need new ones.  That's mostly not true, but it doesn't stop the advertisers from saying it is.

3) New tools are fun.  I think this is a lot of it.  It's like getting a new toy;  it's amazing the first day, but pretty soon you're used to it, and you want a new thrill.

All that said, I'm learning to appreciate what I have.  Learning to use the tools I have better, rather than going looking for new ones.  And I think I'm going to get rid of some of the ones I'll never use;  I don't NEED four braces.  I'll get rid of two, and leave myself the best two.  Some of those saws will, after I sharpen them, go back on the market.  Before I give in and buy a new tool, I'll try to think about whether it really will benefit me to buy it.

Lessons from the bench.

I'm learning.  Slowly, but I'm learning.  A few lessons from the workbench...

1) If it feels wrong, it probably is.  I started making a cut today, and it felt pretty awkward.  I decided to keep on with it, because I couldn't see a better way to do it:  the wood I was trimming splintered, and now I've got a slice on the back of one finger where the wood caught me.  The good news is, I was using a handsaw, not a table saw, so it's pretty minor and will heal quickly.

2) Keep your bench clean.  This one is hard for me.  I'm normally... well, I don't want to say "a slob", because to me that implies dirt.  In my space, things are usually clean, but scattered.  Nothing gets put away.  The fact that I have a very limited space to work means that if I don't put things away as soon as I'm done using them, I run into them later.  I just had to stop midway through a cut, because it turned out I didn't have space behind the vise for the sawblade;  the plane I was using a few minutes before was in my way.

3) Trust your eye, not your measurements.  I spent about 20 minutes this morning jury-rigging a way to keep my plane at a 45 degree angle to smooth a bevel I needed to make.  It was still remarkably difficult to get the bevel cut right.  For the second, third, and fourth -- I'm beveling the top edges of a box to take a similarly beveled top -- I said "forget it, I'm doing it free-hand."  So I marked the edge, took off most of the waste by making short cuts with a dovetail saw and knocking them out with a chisel, then used a #3 plane to smooth and finish it.  Elapsed time, less than 10 minutes for the longest one.  (I judge time by songs;  the longest one to do took me all of "Drinking Duncan" and part of "Slip Slidin' Away", both by Paul Simon.  So maybe 7-8 minutes.)  Each of those three came out cleaner and faster than the one with the jig.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Book Review 4: "The Anarchist's Tool Chest", by Christopher Schwarz

I have to admit, I'm hesitant to write this review.  This book has generated massive amounts of controversy for some reason, and I'm not really sure why.  It seems like, for most people, it's a love-it-or-hate it kind of read.  I'm going to break that trend, and say that while I really like the book, there are things I don't like about it.  On a related note, this book was purchased before any of the books I've already reviewed.

The standard disclaimer:  I am not an expert.  I'm not even a journeyman.  I'm less of a beginner than I was when I wrote my last book review, but I'd still class myself as a beginner.

First Thoughts:

As you probably guessed from the title, this is a review of "The Anarchist's Toolchest", by Christopher Schwarz.  Overall, I like the book.  It's written well, and I happen to enjoy Mr. Schwarz's writing style.  Mixing the practical text with stories of how he got to that point makes this less of an instruction manual and more of a "here's how I got where I am today" narrative.

As a general rule, I like the discussion of tool types and the section about the chest.  I find the background stories to be mostly interesting, and good background on WHY Mr. Schwarz believes what he does.  Although there are places where I disagree with him, he mostly hasn't tried to set himself up as the One True Source, and agrees that there's room for disagreement on, say, whether wooden planes are better or worse than steel ones.

That said:  I really could have done without the philosophy.  I don't really agree with his labeling of himself as an anarchist, and I really would have preferred a few more pages of tools to the pages of sociopolitical monologuing.   It's not that it was badly written or offensive, I just don't think it added anything to the book.


I consider this book to contain four parts, although (except for part 4) they're all mixed together.

1) Background

This covers where Mr. Schwarz came from, what his experience is, and why you should (or shouldn't) pay attention to him.  While it's not strictly necessary, I found that it made sense of a lot of other things in the book that might not otherwise have been entirely clear.  This is where the book starts, and pieces of backstory are scattered throughout the rest of the book.

One thing I'll address here.  I've heard (or more accurately read) people saying that Mr. Schwarz "isn't really a woodworker", or that he's clearly a writer and not a craftsman, or something similar.  I think this is nonsense.  There are very few people who are full time woodworkers these days, and it's true, he's not one of them.  But then, the people who are mostly don't have time to write books.  That's just kind of how it goes.  But he's built a fair amount of furniture for his house, and he knows enough to teach classes;  as far as I'm concerned, that's real enough.

2) Philosophy

This is where the book loses me.  I don't argue that none of it is interesting -- I'd never heard of the Cincinnati Time Store before -- but I don't think it adds much to the book.  Some of the it, such as his discussion of why he prefers to use furniture he has made himself, is interesting.  Some of it, such as the discussion on what it means to be an Anarchist, feel out of place.  It sort of feels like he inserted a lot of this to justify his use of hand tools;  I feel like "I got interested in the history and decided I liked them" would have been an adequate justification.  That's really all I have to say about this section, except that while I don't like it, it doesn't leave the book unreadable;  it just means there are more pieces I skip on re-readings.

3) The Tools

This is, to me, the most interesting part of the book.  This is a list of the tools that Mr. Schwarz considers "essential";  the "if I have this, I can build almost any piece of furniture" list.  The list is based, for the most part, on historical records:  the tools listed in "The Joiner and Cabinet Maker", Josoph Moxon's writings, Andre Roubo's writings, and so on.  There are, of course, exceptions -- the block plane is too modern to have made it into any of those sources -- but that's the base.

What I most appreciate about this section is that there is some guidance on finding tools and rehabbing them.  Yes, the advice is sometimes "Don't bother, just buy a new one", but there are places where he says "Don't worry about this type of defect, here's how to fix it."  While he does highly recommend buying a lot of things from modern manufacturers, he also acknowledges that not everyone can drop $300 on a hand plane, and so buying an old one is likely and not a bad idea.

There are also a few tools in here -- winding sticks, a 2 or 3 foot straightedge, and so on -- that he advocates making for yourself.  The instructions are a little bit sparse, but should be enough for anyone but a raw beginner to manage.

4) The Chest

This is the part most people will buy the book for, but in all honestly I'll probably never use it.  The fact is, my shop space is tiny, and I can't afford to give up the floor space.  Instead, I build a Dutch-style chest, and I'm planning on a low cabinet to set it on top of. 

That aside, this section is fascinating.  It's a solid, step-by-step guide to building a traditional joiner's toolchest, and well worth it even if you're not planning to build one.  There's a lot of good general information on building boxes or any type of carcase, and a lot of tips on tool use that I have found useful in other projects.

There is also another subsection here, on use of the chest and design for tool chests generally.  While I haven't worked from one of these, I've tried some of the motions involved in retrieving things from the bottom.  It feels to me like it would probably work just fine, unless you have a particularly bad back.  I was also interested by Mr. Schwarz's take on dividers and French fitting:  he's fairly opposed to both.  Given that just about every other book on tool chests or tool storage is in favor of both, I found his logic interesting. 

Final Thoughts:

As I've said, I like the book.  I have a suspicion, though, that a lot of people will find the writing style to be annoying enough that it detracts from the value of the book for them.  Similarly, this is not a "do this to be a better woodworker" type of book.  You won't find (except in the chest-building section) clear "do this, then do this" steps.  But there are a lot of books that do that.  I've reviewed a couple of them.  What this book does is try to demonstrate that we've fallen into the trap of "more is better" when it comes to tools, and that "mass produced is better" when it comes to furniture.  I can agree with the basic concept, even if I don't entirely agree with how bad those things are.

This book did one critical thing for me.  It gave me a starting point.  I read the book just about the time I was starting to move my shop indoors, which meant giving up the majority of my power tools.  I knew I needed hand tools, but I didn't know which ones, or really how to pick them.  I'd bought a few, but I didn't really know what I was doing.  Between "The Anarchist's Toolchest" and "Woodworking 1 &2" (by Paul Sellers), I learned how to get started, and I learned that yes, there are other people doing this crazy thing I'm trying to do.  That last one alone made a huge difference.  It meant I knew I could go looking for modern sources for information about what I was doing, and not have to figure it all out for myself.

Would I recommend the book?  Yes.  In point of fact, it's currently one of my three main recommendations for people who want to start working with hand tools.  It's less process based than the other two, but the information on tools is far and away the best of the books I've read.