Got my first premium tool and I’m feeling kinda… meh

Lie-Nielsen chisel review

My new Lie-Nielsen 3/4 chisel, right, next the Harbor Freight version it was replacing.

I got my first premium tool today: A Lie-Nielsen ¾ inch bevel-edge chisel.

From everything I’ve read about Lie-Nielsen, I knew this would be an exciting day… a milestone that marked a new phase of working wood. I’ve lost hours in the Lie-Nielsen website and catalog, imagining the day I’d open my first LN box and hold the tool that would immediately raise me to a new level of craftsmanship.

After reading a great blog series on building a quality tool collection slowly (sorry, I’ve lost the link), I decided I would take the author’s advice, and start with one high-quality chisel. While a full set of Lie-Nielsen chisels isn’t in my budget, it seemed reasonable to build a collection of the tools I really use, one by one. The author made an excellent point: I probably don’t need the full set anyway. He suggested starting with a set of two: three quarter and three eighths.

It made sense.

So a few weeks ago I plunked down my $60 plus shipping to upgrade the one chisel I reach for time and time again: My cheap-ass 3/4-inch Harbor Freight chisel, which came in a set of six for 8 bucks.

It’s not you, chisel: It’s me.

These are the chisels I learned on: Cheap chisels that allowed me to learn how to chop, pare and, most importantly, sharpen, because I wasn’t afraid of damaging them. If I ruined one, I could replace the whole set for 8 bucks. Properly sharpened, these tools have served me well, and I could only imagine what there was to gain by upgrading.

My entire kit is made up of used planes and vintage saws, vices, mallets, etc., cobbled together from Ebay and yard sales. I’ve enjoyed learning about the tools by taking them apart to clean and condition them. They work great, and I love the feeling of working with tools that carry the sweat and energy of other craftsmen. I have a mortise chisel from the 18th century, and I am awed every time I pick it up. Each time I use it, I wonder what this single chisel has made in the 300 years it worked before finding my hand, how many people have used it. Who were they? What did they build? Is any of their work still around?

But still I’d find myself deep in tool lust as I saw the gleaming Lie-Nielsens on other woodworkers’ benches, and I’ve dreamed of the day I’d get to use one. The sound of my 1940s Stanley No. 4 shicking across a board is sublime: What would it be like with a premium plane?

Don’t know yet, but I know my reaction to my Lie-Nielsen chisel. Meh.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s beautiful. The edges bevel to nothing. The back is dead flat. It’s mofo sharp without even honing it. The handle gleams.

It’s not you, chisel: It’s me.

It doesn’t feel right. The balance is all wrong because it’s not like the janky one I’m used to. The handle is too small, too slick. I ran it along a piece of pine, then a piece of mahogany, then walnut edge grain and it cut beautifully. But so did my Harbor Freight. The only difference I could tell was that the LN felt wrong in my hand.

Then there’s the fear factor. I’m afraid to hone it. I’m afraid to drop it. I’m afraid to touch it. After working with it and looking at it for about 10 minutes, I laid it on a shelf, then picked up my Harbor Freight and continued working on my project.

It’s an awesome tool in every way. It’s just that it might not be the right chisel for me. But what does that say about me? Have I just not learned enough to judge tool quality? Or is the tool you use really the best tool money can buy?

I’m open to suggestions.

Working with reclaimed lumber: How rough do you want it?

Most people choose to work with barn wood or reclaimed lumber because they want a rustic look and the patina that only decades of exposure to time and elements can provide. But there are many benefits to working with reclaimed wood even if your vision for your final project is a finely finished aesthetic.

The barn wood look is in vogue right now. But tastes change, so it’s important to look beyond the rustic aesthetic and see the other benefits of working with reclaimed lumber:

  • Environmental: By working with reclaimed lumber you’re keeping building materials out of landfills.
  • Quality: Reclaimed lumber from barns and other old buildings is lumber that came from old-growth forests. It’s a limited resource and therefore, scarce and valuable. Today’s quick-growing stock can’t match the quality of these historic timbers.
  • Historic: For me—just ike working with antique tools—reclaimed lumber is imbibed with the spirit of those who worked it and lived with over the decades or centuries.
  • Financial (sometimes): Once upon a time “reclaimed” lumber was trash. You scavenged for it or took it off the hands of people who were grateful to be free of the burden of hauling it to the dump or burning it. Today, reclaimed lumber’s trendiness means you’ll pay just as much, if not more, than you’d pay for new lumber—especially barn wood. Non-profits like Chicago’s Rebuilding Exchange charge a reasonable price for lumber that comes from deconstructed homes, many of which are 100 years old or older. Boutique reclaimed wood shops are catering to the trend and charge a premium. Salvagers are making bank buying up old barns, carefully deconstructing them and carting them back to their shops for resale.

Finally, there are the aesthetic benefits. When I get new old lumber, I always take a sample and prep it to four different stages: Raw, cleaned, lightly prepped and finished. While the raw surface is always attractive, sometimes I find something beneath that surprises and delights me. Once I’ve done this investigation, I let the wood (and sometimes my wife) tell me what it wants to be.

Here’s a sample taken from a bunch of 4×6 beams I picked up a couple of years ago.

working with reclaimed lumber

The beam in its raw state

Cleaned reclaimed beam

Light brush cleaning

Lightly planed reclaimed beam

Lightly planed

Planed 200 year old beam

Planed and finished with wood oil

The beams came from a 200 year old home that was demolished in Chicago, and I picked them up for a great price in one of my pilgrimages to Rebuilding Exchange. I don’t always go shopping for a specific project. If I like it, I buy it and store it until I figure out what to do with it.

The raw side is gorgeous with its centuries’ old patina of weather, dirt and scars. The second side is brush cleaned with a little water, leaving the weather and history but removing the dirt. Side 3 is planed just enough to show the grain of the fresh wood below while maintaining the character of its scars and work marks. Side 4 is planed down to the raw wood then finished with wood oil, revealing a glow and grain pattern I could never have expected.

This surprising nature of reclaimed lumber is one of my favorite aspects. You just never know what you’re going to find. I’ve found pallets made of red oak. The guys at All American Reclaim in Crystal Lake, IL, (an absolute treasure) recently took down a barn and discovered the rafters and beams were black walnut instead of the pine they expected. As the owner pointed out, old-timers used whatever grew on their land to build their barns. For the shop, this was striking gold: They’re charging $20/bf, which is a good 10% to 20% premium over walnut from hardwood dealers. But for all of the benefits outlined above, it’s worth it. These timbers are gorgeous, and I’m busy working on a design incorporating them… once my tax refund comes in!

The beams from the old Chicago house have found a few different places in my home. One went up in its raw state on a couple of brackets for a book shelf. In our c. 1990 home, the raw wood provides some much needed organic warmth and architectural detail to an otherwise generic build.

Reclaimed beam as book shelf

Easiest reclaimed wood project there is … a book shelf

Another became a pair of speaker stands. These got the quick clean treatment. But the more I look at them, I think I’m going to take them down to a fully planed state.

Reclaimed wood speaker stands

Not much harder … speaker stands

That’s the great part about working with reclaimed lumber: Possibilities.

 

The benefits and challenges of the reclaimed and primitive furniture trend for woodworkers

The current craze for reclaimed furniture, or primitive furniture, means unique opportunities and challenges for woodworkers.

The main benefit is that interest in reclaimed is tied to a desire for handmade furniture, and that’s good for woodworkers. People are tired of prefab, off-the-shelf design and they are yearning for more authentic and unique expressions in their design. We’re seeing major market furniture makers from West Elm to Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware rolling out “reclaimed” and “handmade” lines of furniture, and they’re charging a pretty penny for them.

But if people are yearning for handmade and unique, why wouldn’t they seek out items that are actually handmade and unique. For most woodworkers, a project like this nightstand from West Elm would take a couple of hours to make. Its simple construction is actually a desired design element by people who are looking for this type of furniture.

making reclaimed furniture

This “reclaimed” nightstand from West Elm is $349. How long would it take you to make it?

West Elm charges $349 for this piece, which contains about $12 worth of materials. You can get the materials for free if you use pallet wood, which is all the rage.

But that simplicity is also the challenge for most woodworkers who have spent time, energy and money learning to make fine furniture. Is it insulting to our craft to make work like this? How many woodworkers who have logged hundreds of hours learning to cut perfect half-blind dovetails are even willing to nail together a drawer?

To me, creating simple furniture that people want to buy is an easy way to make money to fund our passion. That seems like a win-win.

But there’s another challenge. For those of us who enjoy working with reclaimed wood, the reclaimed craze has driven prices for pre-used timber to crazy heights. Wood that you used to be able to get for free is now fetching premium prices. Farmers who used to pay people to take down old barns are now besieged by salvage companies paying top dollar to deconstruct their old buildings. The salvagers sell the wood to millworks who charge premium prices for antique flooring, beams, etc.

I’m lucky to live in the Chicago area and have access to the Rebuilding Exchange, a non-profit whose mission is to keep building materials out of landfills. They accept donations of deconstructed material and sell it at a great price. Even if you’re not into building projects that look reclaimed, a lot of what they sell is old-growth timber that is beautiful re-milled and blows away modern, harvested wood. I’ve found gorgeous old-growth pine, fir and redwood timbers for bargain prices, all the while supporting a nonprofit with a great mission instead of a big box retailer.

I’m curious to hear about similar organizations in other areas, so if you have one near you please let me know. And let me know your thoughts on the whole reclaimed thing. Do you think interest in reclaimed and primitive furniture is good for the handcraft movement, or is it a negative? Have you made any reclaimed pieces? Feel free to share them here.

 

 

 

 

Guide to the best woodworking videos on YouTube

reclaimed wood

Whatever style of woodworking you want to learn, you can find it on YouTube, if you know where to look.

YouTube is a valuable resource for beginners looking for a simple way to learn woodworking for free. But finding the good stuff can require hunting through a lot of bad videos. During my journey as a beginning woodworker, I’ve burned a lot of hours watching woodworking videos on YouTube. In this post, I will point the way to what I believe are the best free woodworking videos. I’ll also let you know which paid woodworking videos are worth investing in.

YouTube is the new master

Most woodworkers I know credit tool makers like Lee Valley and Lie-Nielsen for driving the new woodworking renaissance. Others say it’s because magazines like FIne Woodworking and Popular Woodworking have put a new emphasis on hand tool woodworking.

I think YouTube is a stronger driving force. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for YouTube woodworking pioneers like Marc Spagnuolo, Steve Ramsey, Paul Sellers, Jon Peters, Shannon Rogers and others who regularly turn out excellent woodworking videos. These guys have been my virtual mentors and cheerleaders. They have provided inspiration simply by allowing me to watch them work.

Woodworking is a skill that I believe anyone with interest, patience and discipline can learn. But it’s difficult to learn from a book. You really need to see someone perform the work. YouTube provides a simple way to learn woodworking that is an alternative to expensive seminars, furniture making programs in art-and-design colleges and boutique mastership programs. This education is free, on-demand, and—if you do a little work find the best videos—you can structure a workable curriculum to learn the basics of woodworking.

There are hundreds of woodworking content producers on YouTube, but only some are worth your time. Over the past few months, I have spent many, many hours watching woodworking videos on YouTube, so I feel competent to share my list of what I believe are the best.

Paul Sellers

Paul Sellers is a world-class furniture maker with 50 years of experience. He bills himself as the last of the joiners turned out by the traditional English apprenticeship system before industrialization took over furniture making. He is an excellent craftsman and teacher, and he was one of the first to discover the power of Internet video to increase his educational reach beyond the few people who had the time and means to study with him personally in his U.K. and U.S. schools.

Sellers’ focus is on real skills: not ideal, rarified techniques but the real stuff used by real, working joiners. Following Sellers’ instruction has taught me that the beauty of hand-tool woodworking is not esoteric: It is more efficient, safer, quieter and more enjoyable than machining wood. Watch Sellers with a chisel and you will immediately know why learning to read grain is a fundamental skill that will save you time, energy and frustration in the long run. Watch his videos on sharpening and on using a limited collection of flea-market tools, and you will be convinced that you do not have to spend a lot to begin working wood. He’s no-bullshit, real woodworking.

Sellers teaches through several channels. His website, PaulSellers.com features several free high-quality videos. He also has an excellent educational site, woodworkingmasterclasses.com. Here you can view several free instructional project videos. He also offers a paid subscription program for $15 a month. But his free YouTube videos are an excellent place to start learning the basics of tool and timber selection, reading grain, working with a core set of tools, and sharpening.

Steve Ramsey: Wood Working for Mere Mortals

Steve Ramsey is a dude in his garage shop who is a passionate promoter, teacher and cheerleader for beginning woodworkers. Ramsey has released a new video almost every Friday for the past five years on his site and his YouTube channel. And on his MereMinutes channel, he puts out an additional video blog episode every weekend. Ramsey is a power tool guy. His projects are simple and his energy is infectious, and I believe he sincerely wants everyone to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment that comes with learning a new skill and producing things with your own hands. (Here’s an excellent playlist of his beginner’s projects.).

I have never corresponded with the man, but after watching his videos for months, I honestly feel like he is a buddy of mine, and I look forward to his updates every weekend. A lot of other people must feel that way, because he has more than 125,000 subscribers for his YouTube channel. A key aspect of Ramsey’s approach is that he is committed to free woodworking content. He doesn’t charge for anything; and he frequently lambasts those who do. If you want to support his efforts, you can do so through a voluntary donation or subscription or by buying his stuff. (But not his wood working projects: He auctions those on Ebay and donates the money to charity.)

Which brings us to the whole issue of charging money for access to videos. As someone who works in the media industry—and who values education—I have no issue with people charging for high-quality content, and there are several virtual wood working teachers who are worth the investment. At various times I have paid to access content by Paul Sellers and Rob Cossman, and I think I have gotten good value from both (though Cossman’s videos can sometimes seem like infomercials for his tools and other products.) And I will probably pay to join Marc Spagnolo’s Wood Whisperer Guild.

These guys invest a lot of time and money into producing this content. There are hundreds of guys making woodworking videos with their iPhones. The few who invest in the equipment and skills required to produce quality content deserve some form of compensation, whether it comes from selling project plans, promoting their woodworking businesses to gain commissions and sell their work, promoting their tools, receiving sponsorship and advertising money from companies that want to reach their hard-won audiences, or simply charging for access.

Marc Spagnuolo: The Wood Whisperer

Of the paid-subscription producers, Marc Spagnuolo and Rob Cossman produce the best videos I have seen, and they are the best at structuring their videos into true curricula that allow you to build skill upon skill in a natural progression. In the video above, Spagnuolo even shows beginning woodworkers how to buy wood and what to expect on your first visit to a lumberyard. This may seem basic, but it’s the type of instruction I needed as a beginning woodworker.

Spagnuolo is the Wood Whisperer. His site and YouTube channel feature plenty of excellent free content. He and Sellers have been my go-to teachers. He is not only a great woodworker but an engaging host who entertains as he teaches, without being (too) cheesy. His approach (and his book) is hybrid woodworking, meaning he is not an evangelist for power tools or hand tools, but rather a craftsman who recognizes the sense in using the right tool for the job. Sometimes that tool has a cord; sometimes it doesn’t. The Wood Whisperer’s Guild is Spagnuolo’s paid site. Here you can subscribe to specific projects or purchase an annual subscription for around a $125. I would prefer to see a monthly subscription option, but based on his free videos, I am convinced the $125 would be a good investment.

Rob Cossman

Rob Cossman is an excellent teacher but also the most aggressively self-promotional woodworking teacher on YouTube. Paying to access his educational videos was definitely worth it. But even after you’ve paid, you’ll still see pitches to buy his products. It gets tiresome. Most of his YouTube videos are promotions for his tools or his paid site. On his paid site, Cossman teaches power tool skills and hand-tool skills, but in separate tracks. $20 a month gets you access to his hand-tool content; $25 for the power tool track; or $40 for both. Cossman is an excellent teacher with challenging projects that any woodworker would want to build.

Jon Peters

Jon Peters is an artist and cabinet maker who produces excellent YouTube instructional videos on both topics. Video instruction is not a business for him, but it is a good way for him to build his name recognition in both of his areas of expertise. I found Peters when I was looking for my first project: Installing wainscoting. His wainscoting video led me to his cabinet videos, and those convinced me that I could do more than just build utility bookshelves. For this I am grateful, and one of my early projects was making a frame for one of Peters’ prints, which sits on the standing desk I made, which is where I am writing this post.

Shannon Rogers

Shannon Rogers produces videos as The Renaissance Woodworker. He has great blog, and a paid online video program called The Hand Tool School. On YouTube, Rogers presents detailed project videos and he has several long series, including this one on building a Roubo bench. His paid program promises a detailed curriculum approach, but at $200 for the first “semester” and an extensive list of required tools, it’s a little pricey for my budget right now. I’d love to hear from anyone who has gone through this program.

The teachers above are my go-to guys, but there are a few others whose work I enjoy immensely. The Drunken Woodworker is a hip newcomer who produces a weekly video guide to the best woodworking videos and also some way cool project videos. Matthias Wandel is the crazy genius of YouTube woodworking, shooting videos of mind-bending jigs and mechanical contraptions made of wood. Frank Howarth is YouTube woodworking’s resident artiste, producing videos that are lessons in film making and stop-motion animation in addition to beautiful woodworking projects. And Stumpy Nubs is the class clown of woodworking videos. All are entertaining, inspiring and educational. I have a lot of respect for David at The Drunken Worker, Howarth and Stumpy for experimenting with different formats and raising the bar on what a YouTube video can be.

How to learn woodworking from YouTube

Here’s the key to learning woodworking on YouTube: You have to think like an apprentice.

People used to learn woodworking from people who knew how to do it. Boys learned enough from their fathers to build and fix the necessities. Professional joiners learned through apprenticeship, in which the fledgling craftsman performed the drudge work of his master’s shop—sweeping floors, heating animal hide for glue, sharpening and cleaning tools, performing rough milling—practicing each step until the master deemed the apprentice’s skill suitable to begin the work required to start learning the next skill. The apprentice performed this work in exchange for the education that would provide him with his livelihood.

To learn from YouTube teachers, you have to follow the same path. Start with the videos that teach basic skills like sharpening, planing, milling, and how to cut to a line. Practice these skills until you feel confident in them, then move to the next skill. This is how I’ve learned. I spent months making nothing but sawdust and scrap wood as I practiced cutting to a line. Then I spent months practicing dovetails before I got one that worked. It’s taken a level of patience and discipline I never knew I had in me, and I still have a long way to go. But I love the process.

Of course, learning and doing comprise only half of the master/apprentice relationship. The missing piece here is feedback. For that, I recommend joining a local club or getting involved in a woodworking forum like LumberJocks. There you’ll find a community of supportive woodworkers with all levels of experience who can give you feedback and answer your questions.

I hope this gives you a good start. If you begin with the resources listed here, you’ll have hours of quality videos to watch and you’ll save hours of hunting through crap. I’m sure there are many other excellent teachers on YouTube, so if you know someone I’ve missed, please let me know. Leave a comment below so other people can enjoy them too.

 

Buying vintage tools online

Great piece on how to be smart when buying tools on eBay. Personally, I’ve had good luck. But I spend a lot of time watching auctions of tools similar to the one I am seeking before determining exactly what I want and what I’m willing to spend, then even more time waiting till the right one comes up at the right price. There are some non-eBay resources in this post that I hadn’t known about.

working by hand

I have been buying vintage tools for quite a few years now – both from vintage tool shows like “Tools of the Trades”, online tool sellers, and even *shock-horror* – eBay. My experiences have been mostly positive – even though some people decry buying tools from eBay.

When buying a vintage tool, the primary concern (excepting the price of course), is its condition. Buying online, tool sellers often have some sort of classification system, e-Bay however is a little trickier. The most commonly used tool rating system was established by Vernon Ward and the Fine Tool Journal (FTJ). Reputable sellers will post multiple photos of the tool, clearly showing any defects, and possibly either describing the defects, or posting them as “for parts or repair”. In a recent eBay post for a Stanley No.62 plane, photos were posted showing the defects associated with the plane, i.e. the pitting on the sole…

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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.

NO!

NO!

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.