12-and-a-half warnings for anyone beginning woodworking

CLF - Olmstead ParksIf you’re new to woodworking, or just thinking of starting, then welcome to a world of deep creative satisfaction, personal discovery and the meditative bliss that comes with the sound of a finely tuned hand plane schicking across a piece of finely figured wood. That, and utter frustration, sawdust, splinters, obsession and alienation from polite society.

It’s been just a few months since I set out on the same path. I just wanted to build some bookshelves. And today… well, read on, young traveler, and consider yourself warned.

1: You will never look at trees the same way again.

Who doesn’t love trees? They’re magnificent, life giving monuments to creation. But these days, I can’t pass a tree without wondering what it would look like split open, milled into slabs, planks, crotch cuts, cookies… all waiting for me to shape into objects of beauty and wonder. I have to stop myself from pulling over on the side of the road and trying to hoist fallen limbs into the back of my Jeep. I wonder how long the maple in my yard has to live and what it would cost to have it milled.

2: Wood will become an object of lust.

“Exotic” will take on a whole new meeting. You will find yourself, late at night, hunched over your laptop of tablet, aglow in its light and tingling over the sexy photos in front of your eyes. Photos like this.

bocote lumber

Lust inducing bocote from Exotic Lumber Inc., Maryland.

3: So will tools.

If power tools are your game, then you will find your sense of scale adjusting until $2,500 table saws begin to seem reasonable. But if you fall into the murky world of hand tools then woe to you indeed. You will have started down a road of maddening minutiae and eBay obsession.

4: So will other people’s workshops.

Another new form of porn will capture you… watching videos of other people’s shops.

5: You will begin stealing random household items from your own home.

Whether you’re raiding the pantry for vinegar to make screws look old, borrowing the clothes iron to attach edge banding to plywood, or squirreling away jars and cans to store hardware and paint brushes, you will become a thief in your own home as your shop becomes a ferret’s den of hoarded items that you never touched before.

5.5 You will begin calling whatever unused and uninhabitable area of your house that you work in, your “shop”… to the great amusement of your family.

6: All that time you spent ignoring math, physics and chemistry in high school? Yeah, you’ll regret that.

If you’re one of those people who prides himself on limiting his scientific knowledge to the air-speed velocity of an un-laden swallow, knowing 42 is the answer to life, the universe and everything, and debating the archaeological feasibility of “Ancient Aliens,” then you’re in for a harsh truth. There’s a lot of math in woodworking. And not just plusses and takeaways. There’s a whole lot of geometry and dividing fractions and other hard stuff. You will want to know it, and you will want to understand the chemistry involved in finishing and gluing, the cell biology of trees, the load weights of joints and the metallurgy of edge tools. Laugh now, but you will.

7: Your sense of humor will change.

Butt joint

Butt joint

Speaking of laughing… Butt joint! Crotch cut! Did you laugh? Soon you won’t, and you’ll get annoyed when other people do.

8: You’ll develop man crushes.

Two words: Christopher Schwarz. Or Roy Underhill. Or Norm Abrams. Or Paul Sellers. Or even Steve Ramsey. But not, under any condition, Tommy MacDonald.

9: You will measure the value of time and money solely in terms of tools, timber and shop time.

Shop time is valuable. So are tools. If you are used to spending your “spending money” on clothes or music or just about anything else, you will being thinking things like, “That suit costs as much as a Lie-Nielsen No. 8. I can get this one taken out.” You will also give up things like TV (unless it’s The Woodwright’s Shop) and naps to spend an hour in your shop… even if you’ve got nothing to build. There’s always organizing, and reorganizing, and sharpening, and tool cleaning, and jigs to make…

10: You will hate IKEA even more than you do now.



I have been know to suffer emotional breakdowns in IKEA. Now I can’t even think about it without wanting to hurl my jack plane across the room. I can make anything at IKEA cheaper and faster than busting my knuckles with tiny allen wrenches and going mad staring at senseless inkblot pictograms… all without enduring the sweet stench of Swedish meatballs on the 10-mile death march through art, lamps and housewares.

11: You will, at every conceivable juncture and despite all your arguments that money invested in tools today will pay off in savings on furniture later, spend more money making things that you could have purchased for less. See No. 10

12: You will desperately want Nick Offerman to stop telling jokes and tell you more about his giant router jig and crotch slabs. See No. 4.

Props to Steve Ramsey at woodworkingformeremortals.com and his video “You Might be a Woodworker” for the inspiration for this essay… and my continuing with this whole woodworking thing.


A simple and cheap way to antique screws

I found a simple and cheap way to antique the screws for the Dutch tool chest after discovering how expensive it is to purchase antique or reproduction hardware. I was able to find new-old-stock cut nails on eBay at a good price, but the screws eluded me. Whether purchasing them on eBay or from a restoration supplier like Blacksmith Bolt (an awesome resource) would have run about $20 bucks with shipping for a handful of plain steel screws.

I had read about using lemon juice, but that only works on zinc plated screws. All I could find was stainless steel.

The answer was vinegar. Just soak the screws in vinegar and the shiny stainless screws go back in time in about 6 to 8 hours. It’s important to check them regularly to keep them from turning black. You want a nice gunmetal bluish gray patina.

how to antique screws

A little vinegar is all you need to turn back he clock on stainless steel screws.

After soaking them, I rinsed them in water to stop the reaction, dried them well, then scuffed the heads with 80 grit sandpaper. Here’s the result.

how to antique screws with vinegar

The antiqued screws in place.

Dutch Tool Chest Part 4: Top, tool holders and finishing

My power tool exclusion broke down when it came to making the top for chest. I still don’t have the hand tools I would need to make the tongue and groove to make the traditional bread-board ends, so I wound up using a doweling jig and power drill to attach the breadboards. Other than (or because of) that, the top went together smoothly.

Dutch tool chest components

Main components of the chest.

I planed the boards flat and even for the main panel and jointed them to create spring joints, then glued them up and clamped them, then stood there trying to figure out how to attach the ends. I made a quick trip to Harbor Freight to get a biscuit joiner but wound up stumbling on a $15 doweling jig that turned out to work surprisingly well. HF is always a crap shoot, but in this case it turned out great. The jig was aligned correctly out of the box and I had the holes bored and the breadboards placed in about 15 minutes.

All the main pieces were built. What I thought would take hours has already taken days. I usually spend about 2 hours a day working on the chest during the week, and maybe 4 on the weekends, so I figure it’s taken me about 20 hours to get to this point, but I knew this would be a learning exercise, and I can already see how I could have cut that time in half.

From there I moved onto the tool holders for my chisels, marking gauges and saws, then decided to make a small drawer unit to hold miscellaneous items like pencils, dovetail markers, small files, etc. I pulled all of the materials for these pieces from my scrap box, so it’s a bit of mix and match, but I like the outcome.

The interior pieces came together easily, but the saw till inside the lid turned out to be a challenge. I went through three designs and builds before finding one that worked, and even then I had to make adjustments inside to allow the lid to close properly.

As a finish, I wound up going with General Finishes milk paint in Coastal Blue, which seemed close to the photos I had seen of actual Dutch tool chests. After a few tests, I settled on a mix of one part paint with 1.5 parts water and added a dollop of tung oil to smooth it out.

Here she is all put together, minus the top.

dutch tool chest construction

All together now… but still topless.

Dutch Tool Chest Part 3: Finishing the case


With the dovetails cut and the sides and bottom attached, I honestly believed I would finish the chest in one day. What I had not yet learned about woodworking is that the closer you get to the end, the further the end recedes. There’s always another step, and as the work starts coming together well, I would move more slowly and deliberately to keep from screwing something up. I had too much invested at this point. But I motored on (without any motors.)

First, I had to cut the dadoes for the shelf that splits the Dutch Tool Chest into an upper and lower compartment. This is a straight-forward operation: Cut the sides of the channel with a cross cut tenon saw and chisel the waste. Except I was so nervous of cutting the channel too wide, that I cut it too shallow and was having a hell of a time widening it without a side rabbet plane.

By coincidence, it was at this point that decided to post on Lumberjocks.com a photo of an old plane I picked up at a flea market and asked for help identifying it. It’s a side rabbet plane.

I sharpened it up and set to work. After a few tests and trims, the shelf slid home. The sawdust faeries were looking out for me. But it was still two days later.


From there I added the front and rear boards with a few brad nails. My plan is to use cut nails to complete the construction, so the brads are temporary. In Christopher Schwarz’s version, the back of the chest is constructed of shiplap boards that run vertically. I simply don’t have the tools for that, so I went with two horizontal boards. I don’t foresee a lot of temperature or humidity changes in the chest’s future, and the cut nails should be able to handle any slight wood movement.


With the shelf and back in place, I cut the notches for the sliding board that will lock the unit together when the lower front is attached. Should have done the one on the bottom before gluing up the dovetails, but it came out fine anyway. For the bracket on the inside of the removable front piece, I used a piece of mahogany that I got in an Ebay grab bag. Marked the notch to fit the lock board, made several stop cuts along the length of the notch and chiseled the waste.

Well into my second weekend, it was starting to look like a chest. 


Dutch Tool Chest Part 2: Dovetail success; let the carcass begin

With the dimensions figured and the materials purchased, the first step was to cut the dovetails that attach the sides of the Dutch Tool Chest to the bottom board. One of the reasons this build appealed to me as a beginning woodworker is that it incorporates one set, and only one set, of dovetails. The rest of the case is connected by fasteners, but as with a drawer front, the bottom of the chest will handle the most stress. The flared tails will firmly secure the bottom of the chest when it is lifted.

My weeks of daily practice cutting dovetails paid off, as I cut the joint successfully on the first try. They’re not perfect, but they work and I don’t think they look too bad for a beginner.

Hand cut dovetails on a dutch tool chest

They’re not the prettiest dovetails, but for a beginner, I’m pretty happy with them.

I’ve discovered that hand saw skills are based on three things: Stance, muscle memory and confidence. As in golf, tennis and most sports, success stems not from the hands or arms, but through tuning the entire body to make and repeat the correct action starting with the placement of the feet and proper “ready” position of the core. Once the these aspects are properly dialed in, the cut becomes repeatable.

The right equipment matters too. Prior to starting the chest, I had been cutting dovetails with this Crown Gent’s Saw. It’s a good saw… love it for cutting small rabbets and dadoes… but the straight handle makes control difficult for angled cuts. During my practice I had promised myself that once I cut a successful dovetail I would reward myself with a good dovetail saw. After lots of research I chose the Veritas, which I bought at the Libertyville Woodcraft. I also picked up a Veritas dovetail saddle marker while I was there. I’ll post a review of the saw later, but suffice it to say I’m happy with it. It’s well balanced and comfortable and a huge improvement over the Gent’s saw. I went with the fine-cut, 20-ppi version only because it was the one they had in stock at Woodcraft.

How to build a dutch tool chest

The sides and bottom attached and square.

With the sides and bottom attached and square, it was time to move on to the carcass. At this point, I honestly thought the hard part was behind me and the rest of the build would be done in a few hours.

I was wrong.

Dutch Tool Chest Build

Shortly after I began my journey into working wood, I decided my first hand-tool project would be learning how to build a Dutch Tool Chest. I fell in love with the Dutch Tool Chest after seeing Christopher Schwarz present it on this episode of the Woodwright’s Shop, a show I loved as a kid and rediscovered after searching my cable provider for every woodworking show I could DVR.

How to build a Dutch Tool Chest

Roy Underhill checks out Chris Schwarz’s Dutch Tool Chest on an episode of The Woodwright’s Shop

This project seemed to have it all: Romance, utility, challenge, history. After watching the video a few times and Googling photos of Schwarz’s and others’ Dutch tool chests, I decided there were several reasons it would be the one of the best projects for a beginning woodworker.

  • It’s a perfect balance of simplicity and complexity. Dovetails connect the bottom to the sides, but the remaining joinery is done with fasteners. It would test and develop basic skills of design, measuring, marking, sawing, planing and joining without causing me to over reach my abilities and get frustrated.
  • Other than the 30 degree angle of the top, no dimensions were discussed and, at the time, no plans were available. (Plans were later made available in the Aug. 2013 issue of Popular Woodworking, but I was well into the build by the time I discovered this.) I would need to figure out the dimensions on my own. For me, problem solving is one the main draws of wood working so I avoid plans and either build from my own designs or mentally reverse engineer things that I like.
  • I could customize it to fit my needs.
  • It’s the type of project an apprentice woodworker (as I imagine myself) would tackle early on.
  • I particularly liked the simple yet clever lower compartment and locking cleat system that held on the lower front.
  • I liked the look.
  • It would provide a home for my slowly growing collection of vintage hand tools.

So  after months of trying (and failing) on an almost daily basis to cut dovetails by hand, the day finally came that I slid a pin board and tail board together… and it worked! It was time to start the Dutch.

woodworking hand cut dovetails

My first successful hand cut dovetail

Here’s the sketch I started with.

dimensions for a dutch tool chest

The first rough sketch

For dimensions, I started with the depth. Using 1 x 12 stock, the sides would be 11 1/4 inches, plus 3/4 inch added apiece by the front and back boards, for a total of 12 3/4 inches. I figured out the width by looking at a video of Schwartz hoisting the chest. We’re about the same size, so comparing his arm span to mine, I figured it to be about 30 inches. I then measured my cross cut and rip saws, which would be kept on the inside of the cover. I added a few inches for clearance and came to a final width of 33 inches. For the depth, I simply worked from the tools that would have to fit inside.

I planned to hang my chisels at the back, store my planes at the front and store my saws standing in the center. I came up with roughly 14 inches for the back and 7 inches for the front, then used the one piece of information I did know–the 30 degree angle of the slope from back to front–to determine the actual dimensions.

After several tweaks, here are the final dimensions for the Dutch tool chest that I wound up with:

  • Carcasse:
    • Width: 32 5/8
    • Depth: 12 3/4
    • Front height: 15 1/8
    • Rear height: 22 3/8
  • Top compartment:
    • Front height: 6 3/8
    • Rear height: 12 5/8
  • Lower compartment height: 8 9/16
  • Top: 33 3/8 x 15

Finally, I set a few rules for myself:

  • For historical accuracy and skill development, I would build the chest entirely using hand tools and traditional woodworking techniques… as far as my limited tool collection would allow.
  • For stock, I would use common pine and pull as much as possible from my ever growing scrap pile. I’m not confident enough yet to risk screwing up with expensive hardwoods, so I’d have to build this using home center pine. Not the most durable or romantic wood, but it’s utilitarian, cheap and easy to work. If you’re starting out, I suggest sticking with it for a while…. especially while all you’re making is sawdust and scrap.

Now, for the dovetails.