Tuesday, April 26, 2016


I had planned to publish the next month of "Woodworking on $1.50 per day" last week, but time got away from me.  The good news is, one of the things that happened over the weekend was a sale at Woodcraft, which may have changed dramatically what I was going to write.

I've just ordered two tools I've been wondering about for a couple years.  Both are planes by Mujingfang, who have a reputation for building decent, reliable tools.  One is their plough plane, which is cheaper than the next best option by... maybe a couple hundred dollars, new?  It normally runs about $65, and was 15% off.  The other, which is much more relevant, is their 11" jack plane.  Since I was planning to write about how it's impossible to find a new plane at a good price, and it runs about $50, now I'll have a chance to test whether I can still say that.

I expect them to arrive sometime next week, or over the weekend if I'm extremely lucky.  So you can expect the next post in the series then.  In the meantime, I hope to find time (and scrap) to build a toolbox like the one I suggested building.  If so, I'll post some photos and a build log.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Woodworking on $1.50 per day - Part 3

Here we are, entering month three.  You've spent the past month or so learning to cut dovetails, trying to figure out how to cut a housing dado with your ryoba saw, and hopefully making some shop furniture.  This month, we're going to make life easier by getting some marking tools.

A lot of people will tell you that you should spend a fortune buying marking and measuring tools, and that you need accuracy of .001" over a foot, and you need to buy a super expensive square to be that accurate.  In my view, that's nonsense.  You'll get that much movement in your board over the course of an hour, just from changing temperatures.  Yes, accuracy is important.  Yes, reliability is important.  But it doesn't have to be THAT good.  Here are some suggestions:


Assuming you live in the US, buy an Empire True Blue 16" Combination Square.  They're inexpensive ($14 at Home Depot, and only a little more on Amazon), easy to get, and mine has remained accurate for something like 6 years now.  This gets you a good square, a good 45 degree marker, and a 16" steel rule.  It'll be a little awkward for small parts, so consider supplementing it with their 6" version at some point later.  For right now, it will do.

Marking Gauge

I'll be honest:  I'm torn here.  The next tool you need is a marking gauge of some sort, and I'm unsure what to recommend.  So instead of a single recommendation, I'll give you a few choices, cheap to expensive.
  • Harbor Freight Mortise Gauge:  At $10 it's the least expensive of the lot.  It's also the cheapest.  If you go this route, open the package at the store.  Check to make sure the sliding arm is actually perpendicular to the fence when it's locked down, that it actually locks down, and that all three pins are there.  I have one, and I use it regularly, but it's sometimes frustrating because it's not really a precision tool.  Also, you'll want to file the pins down to a football cross-section, and use very little pressure when making the first mark.  It works, but it's not great.
  • Rockler or Wood River Wheel Marking Gauge:  If you have a Rockler or Woodcraft nearby, you can pick up one of their house branded gauges for about $17.  A wheel marking gauge is usually easier to set and use, and they'll almost certainly hold their setting better.
  • The Veritas Wheel Marking Gauge:  This is the best of the lot.  It's my most used gauge, and it's fantastic.  It's also over $30.
As I said, I'm not really sure how to go.  I think, in the end, I'd recommend buying one of the cheaper options, which will leave you enough money for item 3.  Probably go with the Rockler or Woodcraft gauge:  they seem to get good reviews, and are certainly higher quality and easier to use than the Harbor Freight version.

Marking Knife

A marking (or striking) knife.  Something like the one by iGaging will make your life a lot easier:  the spear point means you can get the blade flat against your rule or whatever you're using to mark, and they're pretty inexpensive.  Another option is a folding knife:  I went this route, with the Stanley 10-049 Pocket Knife, which is recommended by Paul Sellers.  It's easy to store in a shop apron pocket, and being able to close it means it'll stay sharp longer.  On the downside, I wasn't able to find any source for them except Amazon, which means you'll have to order it.

What can I do now?

To be honest, that hasn't changed much.  When I started this series, I wanted to prioritize tools that would get you working as quickly as possible, since most people aren't thrilled about spending three or four months buying tools they can't actually use.  The difference this month is accuracy.

A good square will enable you to do layout much more accurately:  if you can lay the line more precisely, you'll wind up with straighter cuts and parts that fit together better.  A marking gauge will make cutting rabbets or dovetails simpler, because it will be easier to mark the width of the rabbet or depth of the tails.  A marking knife makes a more precise line than a pencil or pen, and opens the option of using a knifewall to guide your saw, which is more accurate than just trying to cut on a line.

Basically, this doesn't let you do anything new, but it helps you get better at what you were already doing.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Woodworking on $1.50 per day - Projects!

I said this was the month where you could realistically start making furniture, and I wanted to back that up and make some suggestions for projects.

1) A tool box.  If you didn't already make a tool box in month 1, start now!  I recommend a Japanese style toolbox.  There's a good video showing how they work here:

Why?  Because they're relatively simple, they can be made out of commonly available materials (1x10 and 1x2, for instance), and they don't have many difficult cuts.  If you're careful making your cuts, you shouldn't need anything but wood, nails, a saw, and a hammer to put one together.

You could also build a Dutch-style chest, which is my personal preference, but that involves some angled cuts, dealing with hinges, and things like that.  It's still doable with these tools, but it's not easy.

2) A bookshelf.  If you follow this link, you'll find some photos of a book case from the book "The Anarchist's Design Book".  While it would be a lot easier with a couple of extra tools, you could build something quite like it with the tools you have now.  Cutting dados with a ryoba is a pain (I've done it), and you won't be able to do tongue-and-groove joints for the back, but you can make something quite similar with a saw, a chisel, and a hammer.

3) You can actually make some pretty cool things.  I'm not recommending it as an early project, but here's someone making mitered full blind dovetail joints with a ryoba, a quarter inch chisel, and a half-inch chisel.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Woodworking on $1.50 per day - Part 2

It's been a month since you last went out to buy tools, and you're getting tired of nailing joints together.  You really want to cut some better joints, but you're not sure how to get started.  Well, that's what this month's purchasing is, so let's get going!

Month 2

This month we're going to find some chisels and sharpening tools.  This is where you get to make some choices.


For chisels, you want bevel-edge chisels in at least 1/4" and 1/2" sizes.  Adding a 1" chisel will make your life easier, but isn't necessary for a lot of things.  If you look at Amazon, you can get Irwin Marple chisels for $8-$9 each.  That's about $18.  I'd recommend buying a 1/4" and a 1/2", and spending the rest of this month's budget on sharpening stones.  If you don't want to order from Amazon, Sears and Home Depot have similar chisels at similar prices.  You can also keep an eye on thrift stores, flea markets, and yard sales:  those are a bit risky, because you're not really going to have the tools to restore a badly damaged chisel, but you might find a fantastic deal.

Keep in mind these are not high-quality tools.  They're not going to be very sharp out of the box, and they probably won't hold an edge all that long.  That said, I worked with a set of Craftsman chisels for a few years, and while they sucked, they still worked.


Talking about sharpening is like tap-dancing through a minefield.  Given a budget of about $25, though, you're pretty limited.  Given that, I'm going to go with the two cheapest initial cost options.  There are a lot of excellent videos on how to sharpen, so I'm not going to cover it here.


First things first, you need a flat surface.  There are two cheap ways to get one, although neither will be perfect.  First, go to a home store and buy a granite floor tile.  They should run around $5-8, and will be flat enough.  The second option is to talk to a granite supplier.  See if they've got an off-cut too small to sell as a countertop, but big enough for your use.  You probably want something around 8"x2" at a minimum, and ground smooth on at least one side.  Larger is better.

Next, you should be looking for sandpaper.  You want wet/dry paper, and for routine sharpening you can probably start with 400 grit.  I'd go 400, 800, and 1000 grit.  If you want to, you can go up to 2000, but I mostly didn't bother when I was using sandpaper.  When you go to sharpen, drip some water or windex on the paper, set it on the granite plate, and sharpen.  

So what's the catch?  The catch is that while the initial investment is low, the long-term cost is high.  Yes, sandpaper is cheap, but the cost adds up.  You can't use the same sheet for very long, or you'll run into issues where half of the cutting edge is sharp and the other half isn't.


Oilstones are a slightly larger initial investment, but not horrible.  You can get a three-grit set on Amazon for around $25, which is just within our budget.  Similar options may be available at local stores, or they may not:  it's hard to guess in any given area.  You're mostly going to want fine and extra-fine grits, not the coarse one.  That's really for working on a damaged blade, which hopefully you won't have.

Is there a catch?  I've never used that particular set, so I don't really know.  In all honestly, I greatly prefer a diamond plate, and so I've switched to that exclusively.  But they're not cheap:  the combined price for the set I have is something like $150, which is absurd for a $45/month budget.  If you have a windfall, sharpening tools would be a great way to spend it, but for now just put it on your "someday when I'm rich" list.

What can I do now?

The addition of chisels makes a big change.  You can now cut dovetails, for instance.  For practice, I recommend buying a piece of 1x4 or 1x5, and cutting a set of dovetails every day for at least two weeks.  Try to get a little better every day, and fix something that didn't quite work right the day before.  At the end of two weeks or a month, you're likely to be cutting them fairly quickly and quite accurately.

So that means you can make dovetailed boxes, or drawers for a case that's nailed together.  You can make housing dados and rabbets if you're careful, which means you can make a pretty solid book case.  You can now make mortise and tenon joints in softwood, and in hardwood if you're cautious.

This is, honestly, the point where you can start making furniture.  You don't have a smoothing plane or a big range of sandpaper grits, so making fine furniture is a challenge, but you can make things.  For that matter, you now have the critical tools for making a workbench:  I didn't have much more than this when I built my small bench.

So spend the next month practicing sharpening and making joints, and I'll figure out what you should buy next.