The Helpful Yellow Machine

Or: Confessions of a reluctant machine owner

Nearly all of my tool purchases are carefully planned over a period of time, with a certain amount of questioning before I put any money down as to whether I really need that tool. As a result, I rarely feel conflicted about a tool when it arrives, because I’ve made sure that it fills a genuine gap, and it’s at a price point I can afford. Last summer, there was one tool which I felt horribly conflicted about ordering, even though going through that same thought process left me in no doubt that placing an order was exactly the right move. That tool was a 12″ thicknesser by DeWalt. After 7 months of using the machine, I thought looking at the reasons why I was reticent to purchase it, and whether those concerns were reflected in reality, would make for an interesting blog post.

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The cause of much soul searching and angst, or a helpful apprentice?

I know what you’re thinking – you don’t expect to read much about machines on OtW. And I do wonder if this post will result in a reduction in my regular readership (there’s nothing like living dangerously on a bank holiday weekend, is there?). But I’ve always aimed to be honest about my approach to woodwork, and while I remain hand tool focused there are some machines I wouldn’t be without (I love my drill press and band saw, and fear my router wth every fibre of my being). So here goes.

I first started considering investing in a thicknesser during the Policeman’s Boot Bench – processing a number of sizeable (and often unruly) oak boards entirely by hand turned out to be a much more time demanding process than I had anticipated. Now, woodwork for me has always been as much about the process as the finished article (let’s see how many craft-based cliches I can fit into one blog post shall we?), and handwork is really where I find my satisfaction at the workbench. But ever since the Apprentice arrived, there has been a constant tension in how I feel about being in the workshop, which I’m sure will be familiar to many other woodworking parents.

Most of my waking time is spent thinking about what I will do when I’m next in the ‘shop, mentally rehearsing tricky operations or techniques, running over designs or new projects. And then, when I am at my bench, I wish I was with the Apprentice. So there is a palpable tension between the need to be productive and build things with my hands, and the need to be a hands-on, and present, father. It’s a tension that has had me chasing my tail for nearly three years, and I confess there have been times when I’ve seriously thought about shuttering the workshop permanently and dedicating every waking moment that I’m not in the office to fatherhood. That doesn’t sound like a bad way to live at all. Dr Moss is a lot smarter than I am, and she disagrees. I think, because she recognises that if I did not have some opportunity to pursue this vocation, and to satisfy that need to build things, that I would eventually turn into a withered husk. And withered husks are not generally much good at being decent parents. So it is a case of balancing parenthood and the workshop, which requires a degree of time efficiency.

I’m not saying that handtools are slow, far from it. Having dedicated 2016 as a year of unplugged work focusing on fundamental hand tool techniques, and working my way through two thirds of the Joiner & Cabinetmaker, I can process stock by hand pretty swiftly. And if I were building small pieces, or still focusing on lutherie, then my stock preparation would remain handtool only. But for the larger furniture pieces that I seem to be building at the moment, flattening a large board by hand and then thicknessing it mechanically is definitely a time saver.

Ultimately, after much soul searching, it was words of encouragement from Jim and Chris that convinced me I wasn’t committing a grave sin by ordering the helpful yellow machine. And as Chris pointed out, thicknessing machines have existed in various forms for at least 400 years. One of my concerns was that a thicknesser would encourage me to become lazy, and also de-skilled. That might show a very specific handtool prejudice towards machines (and I know machine-orientated woodworkers who produce incredible work), but I’m glad to report that it has not been the case. Flattening the reference face of my stock keeps those handplane skills sharp, and I still thickness the occasional board by hand to keep that skill set current. Also, some stock exceeds the capacity of the DeWalt, which means that I have no choice but to process it entirely by hand. What the thicknesser has allowed me to do is move through the stock preparation stage of a project more swiftly, which increases productivity in the long run, and aswages any guilt about being away from the family for a morning. That peace of mind alone means that the cost of the DeWalt was a worthwhile investment.

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Munching 12″ wide boards down to thickness saves time which I can then spend on cutting joinery

So will you see my workshop trading out the hand planes, back saws, and brace and bit for a collection of shiny powered contraptions? Not at all. My focus will as ever remain on traditional handwork techniques and tools. And this is a focus which means that the workshop is an appropriate environment for the Apprentice to spend time in, should she wish to in a couple of years time. But for the grunt work of bringing boards down to the required thickness, I’m glad to have a helpful yellow machine to assist me.

The redneck sticking board… for when all other workholding fails

Richard Maguire wrote a very interesting blog post about work holding on Friday, which came at exactly the right time for me. The main thrust of Richard’s post (although it really is worth reading in its entirety) is that clamping every workpiece to the bench is not only unnecessary, but also disrupts workflow. Now, Richard knows his workbenches, so I find it pays to give proper thought to what he says. As it happens, I received a planing stop in the post a couple of weeks ago from Peter Ross, in readiness for my Roubo bench build (and more about that soon). But on my current bench I’m limited to bench dogs, holdfasts, and clamps. These do for most tasks, but occasionally I hit an operation which these workholding methods are just not appropriate.

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This handmade planing stop by Peter Ross is just sublime, and will perform key workholding duties on my Roubo bench

My current build (for the October issue of Popular Woodworking) is a case in point. This project calls for a shallow drawer which is grooved to accept the drawer bottom. All very conventional. But securing a narrow drawer side to plough the groove can be tricky, as I realised this morning. The drawer stock was too narrow to hold with clamps without fouling the posts of the plough plane, and I prefer not to use a tail vise and dogs to hold small stock due to the risk of the clamping pressure bowing the workpiece. While I was contemplating how to secure the drawer stock in place, Richard’s post started to play on my mind. And then I realised I already had the solution tucked away in the corner of my ‘shop.

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Five minutes, a length of 3/4″ ply, and a handful of self tapping screws, and I had the most redneck sticking board ever to grace a workbench. It was also incredibly effective. I always keep a box of self tapping screws on hand for jig making – they are nasty little things which I would never use for furniture, but perfect for jigs. Instead of driving the screws all the way home, I put three at varying heights to act as a rough planing stop. To prevent the drawer stock from deflecting sideways I then created a fence by driving another series of screws into the ply, leaving them proud of the surface. This positioned the workpiece with one edge hanging off the ply for the plough fence to register against. The pressure from the plane was sufficient to hold the workpiece against the two lines of screws, and with the screw heads below the surface of the workpiece there was nothing to foul the movement of the plane (as there would have been had I used clamps or a holdfast).

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A handful of screws and some thick ply was all I needed to hold these narrow drawer components securely for grooving

Now, none of this is particularly revolutionary – this is basically a very rough version of the sticking board from Mouldings in Practice. But what I found very interesting about the whole experience was how it improved my workflow, very much as Richard had suggested. Instead of releasing clamps or winding back a tail vise, I could just pick up the unsecured workpiece to check my progress. This encouraged a much smoother workflow, and smooth leads to fast. After ploughing several grooves, I also needed to cut a stopped groove, and I used the same sticking board. It worked even better in this application – without needing to worry about the plough plane fance, I was able to butt the workpiece against a screw head, and hold it in position using only pressure from the small router plane. Simple, intuitive, and quick. And even better, at the end of the operation I removed the screws and put the ply back in the corner until I need it again. Now that’s my sort of jig.

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Hand pressure and a screw keeps the workpiece in place while cutting the stopped groove

Based on this brief experiment I can’t help thinking about how I might apply the same principles for other workholding tasks, so that I do not have to rely on anchoring the workpiece down. I’m also greatly looking forward to using the Peter Ross planing stop once the bench build is complete. Roubo is coming.

Karl Holtey profile in Handplane Essentials

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Over the past 5 years I’ve found the first edition of Chris’ book Handplane Essentials to be an invaluable reference, so when he announced last year that he was working on a revised second edition I knew I would have to pick up a copy. What I didn’t realise, until an eagle-eyed reader at EWS 2017 told me, was that along with a lot of new content by Chris the 2nd edition of Handplane Essentials also contains my profile on Karl Holtey.

My copy arrived last week, and although I have only had a brief opportunity to flick through it so far, my first impressions are that the second edition builds on what was already an excellent body of reference material. To have one of my articles included in this collection is a real thrill, and I’m looking forward to stealing some time to read the new edition in depth. Handplane Essentials can be found in the Popular Woodworking store here.

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Button Pins, Stickers and T-shirts

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Have you ever felt the need to fly the OtW flag, but it’s laundry day and your tee is in the wash? Well, help is at hand because I’m now stocking these delightful 1.5″ OtW button pins. As a teenage music fan in the 90’s, button pins were an integral part of music fandom, and my guitar strap was host to a constantly rotating cast of button pins by my favourite bands. So I am really pleased to have a limited stock of branded pins.

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Speaking of tees, I still have a couple of sizes left in both British Racing Green and Cardinal Red, as well as sets of stickers. Tees are priced at £20, stickers are £3 per set, and button pins are also £3 (all prices exclusive of shipping). I’ll also do some bundle deals for folk who order a tee with stickers or button pin. As always, to order or make an enquiry, drop me an email at kieran at over the wireless dot com.

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Book Report – the OtW Top 5 Picks for Woodworking Knowledge

My first introduction to handwork was in a formal class environment at the Totnes School of Guitar Making. In contrast, save for two week long classes through New English Workshop, all of my furniture building has been self taught through trial, error, and judicious amounts of reading. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and so it was inevitable that as I became more invested in woodwork I would start to build up a healthy reference library. A common question posed on forums and social media (as well as, you know, actual human to human interaction) is what woodwork books are worth reading, especially from the perspective of the beginner. Vic wrote a thought-provoking post on this very subject a couple of years ago.

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This is why I need to build the boarded bookcase from The Anarchist’s Design Book – half of my woodwork library is currently languishing on this Billy bookcase from IKEA, and the remainder is still boxed up.

So, I thought it was about time that I threw my hat into the ring and offered up my five essential woodwork texts. This bost has been percolating at the back of my mind for ages, and to be honest whittling the list down to my top five picks felt like a really tough challenge. There is a huge volume of woodwork reading material out there, and it pains me to omit Roubo, Moxon, Hayward, or Krenov (especially Krenov). So this list is a starting point, and not a list of the only books you need to read. It also reflects some of my enduring pre-occupations with woodwork, namely how to make the crafts accessible to new entrants, which a woodworker more inclined to other matters, might skip. I’ve also focused on furniture making rather than lutherie (otherwise Bob Benedetto’s excellent book on archtop guitar making would have found a slot). But without further ado…

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The Anarchist’s Tool Chest – Christopher Schwarz

The inclusion of this title will be a surprise to exactly no one. The Anarchist’s Tool Chest was such a pivotal book for me (and countless other woodworkers) when I first read it. Chris made a critical leap by linking the philosphy and practice – expressing exactly what it was about woodwork that appealed to me, and then identifying exactly how to go about it. And while the tool chest itself may have been a literary conceit, Chris offers a much needed antidote to the forums which insist you cannot build anything until you have a well appointed machine room in addition to bulging lists of handtools. The book thoughtfully guides you through a compact tool kit which will cover nearly all furniture building needs, and explains how to separate used tools worth buying from tool-shaped junk. In short, The Anarchist’s Tool Chest equips the reader with the motivation to make things by hand, and the means to execute those ideas.

If I could only have one woodwork book, this would be it. The following passage sums up the power of this book, and the thrill I still get everytime I lift the lid on my Anarchist’s Tool Chest: “The mere act of owning real tools and having the power to use them is a radical and rare idea that can help change the world around us and – if we are persistent – preserve the craft”.

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The Joiner and Cabinet Maker – Anon

I’ve written about the The Joiner and Cabinet Maker previously, but it would be impossible to write this list without including this book, so it’s worth explaining again.

The story of The Joiner and Cabinet Maker follows a young lad called Thomas through his mid-nineteenth century apprenticeship, and covers in great detail three projects. The first is a packing box (which I also wrote about here). Then follows a school box at the mid-point of his apprenticeship, and finally a chest of drawers before Thomas becomes a journeyman. By following a progression of projects chronologically, we see Thomas start out with only a few tools and using them to learn key skills to build simple items, and then growing his tool kit and his skill set. Building along with Thomas offers an opportunity to build skills in a structured and organised fashion, and to invest in a tool kit on an as needed basis, organically and cost efficiently.

If you have never built anything out of wood, I would suggest starting with this book, and building all three projects in order, only using the tools and techniques mentioned in the book. That would give you a compact (and affordable) tool kit and a solid set of the fundamental skills needed to build a wide variety of furniture. I still haven’t built the chest of drawers from The Joiner and Cabinet Maker, but I plan on doing so as soon as I have a clear slot in my workshop calendar.

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The Perfect Edge – Ron Hock

I’m not sure any subject in woodworking carries as much voodoo or conflicting information as sharpening. Which is nuts, because really sharpening is ancillary to the fun of working wood. Sure, humanity is wonderful in its variety, and there are probably folk out there who just sharpen things as a hobby. Me, I really like making tools blunt by using them (and then I have to sharpen them again, dammit). But it is nigh on impossible to do woodwork until you can sharpen properly – sharpening is one of the fundamental gateway skills. Fortunately, Ron has written a book which explains metallurgy, the science behind sharpening, and the various sharpening options, in a way that is clear and free of voodoo. I’ve never read any other books or articles on sharpening  because I’ve never needed to – with Ron’s clear guidance I can get a razor edge on my tools quickly, and back to the business of working wood.

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Making Things Work Nancy Hiller

This book won’t teach you how to cut a perfect dovetail, or how to design your dream cabinet, but what it will do is give an incredible insight into the life of a professional woodworker. Nancy is an entertaining and thought-provoking writer who recounts annecdotes gathered over the course of her career with humour and insight, exploring why people are motivated to make things with their hands as well as the hard reality of what that career can entail. When I started formulating this list I knew I needed to include something which spoke to the why of woodwork as much as the how. Written from the perspective of a life dedicated to craft, and with a sharp eye for detail, this book fills that slot (and pipped The Impractical Cabinetmaker by Krenov to the post).

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The Minimalist Woodworker Vic Tesolin

Want to try woodworking but don’t have a workshop or a tool kit? Worried about the space and cost demands of embarking in the woodcrafts? Let Vic be your guide. I’m all in favour of anything that can lower the entry bar to woodwork, and Vic’s book should frankly be essential reading for all aspiring woodworkers. Through the course of the book, Vic explains how to set up a work space, identifies a minimal tool kit, and walks the reader through a series of projects building essential shop fixtures (a workbench, tool storage, and bench appliances) to develop the skills to use those tools. The quality of photography is great (poor photographs in woodwork books is a particular bugbear of mine – for some reason lutherie books often contain the worst photos, although I’m never sure why) and the book is written in Vic’s customary no nonsense style.

Dispatches from Carmarthenshire

I’m now back home from rural Wales and reflecting on what was a very productive week at Chris Williams’ workshop. The five days yielded a beautiful chair made by Chris (which other than a lick of paint, is now complete), nearly 700 photographs, and endless pages of detailed notes on the build process. Everything we need to now write the “make a stick chair” section of The Life & Work of John Brown. This feels like a huge milestone. A big thanks must, of course, go to Chris Williams. Over the course of the week Chris not only built a beautiful chair, but he maintained good humour when asked to hold awkward positions for repeated photographs, and answered all of my questions patiently and with clarity. His generosity with his knowledge and experience is what makes this book possible

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And that’s a wrap!

I’m still sifting through the photos (and it will take a couple of days to properly survey everything) but in the meantime, here is a taster of what you can expect from the book.

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Saddling the seat with an adze

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Stick shaping with a draw knife

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Scraping the arm

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Cutting the swan neck on the doubler

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Drilling the seat

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Paring the sticks flush to the arm

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Completed arm

Lights! Camera! Action!

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A final test of the lighting rig before I load the car.

While I’ve not posted an update on the progress of the John Brown book for a while, behind the scenes we’ve been working hard on interviewing people who knew (or were influenced) by Chairman Brown, investigating historic examples of Welsh Stick Chairs (see my article for Furniture & Cabinetmaking this month for a beginner’s guide to the chair form), and working out how exactly we are going to structure the book.

Today I am heading down to Carmarthenshire to spend a week with Chris Williams. We will spend the next week hunkered down in Chris’ workshop – him building a Welsh Stick Chair while I photograph and document the process for the book. This will form the basis of the “Build a Welsh Stick Chair” section of the book, a section we started last year with our trip to the timber yard. Over the course of the next week, we hope to be able to capture how John Brown built his chairs, but also how the chair design has continued to evolve in the years Chris has been buiding them since John’s death, and why Chris has changed some of the techniques he uses to build them. Researching these chairs over the past year has highlighted how dynamic a form they are – they constantly evolve maker to make, and often chair to chair. We hope over the course of the next week to be able to lift the lid on some of that process.

At the end of the week we should then be in a position to write the “Build a Welsh Stick Chair” chapters, and a substantial element of the book will be complete (at least in draft form). And so I’m looking forward to setting out westwards this evening. Not just because this represents a major milestone in the development of the book, but also because of the opportunity to learn first hand from Chris – to watch how he crafts his beautiful chairs and to ask questions about the process, the evolution of his approach, and his relationship with John Brown. The next five days or so promise to be a real education, one which we plan to share with you through the book.

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The chairmaking chapters will explain how to turn a set of timber like this, into a Welsh Stick Chair, and also how to source the timber in the first place.