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.


Mike Rowe goes to bat for students of axed building trades program in Ottawa IL

Mike Rowe supports Ottawa Ill.

The mikeroweWORKS Foundation is concerned with promoting hard work and supporting the skilled trades.

Mike Rowe, the former host of “Dirty Jobs” and a passionate supporter of the trades in America, has lent his celebrity and talent to back the students of the Ottawa (Ill.) Township High School building trades program who walked out of class when it was announced that the program and its teacher were being axed. In response to the students’ protest, the school administration–who received a 5-percent pay raise in the same school board session that resulted in the decision to close the program–suspended the students and banned the seniors from attending their prom.

The community has rallied behind the students and teacher, staging protests in the street and on Facebook and calling on the board to change its decision and save the building trades program. On Saturday, the Ottawa Times reported that the board says it’s not happening.

Shortly after the news broke, Rowe wrote a brief piece on his Facebook page, saying:

“I like that these kids are willing to suffer the consequences of speaking their minds. I like that the local trade unions are supporting them. I like that the press is covering it. But mostly, I like that somebody is standing up for the skilled trades. Finally. In a place where it really matters.”

Then he surprised the community by releasing the video below on his website in support of the students. Because of Rowe, it looks like the trade students of Ottawa and the scrapping of building trades programs throughout America are getting national attention.


A thousand cuts

students protest building trades cuts in Ottawa IL

Downtown Ottawa, Ill. (photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Ottawa, Ill. is a small town about 90 miles southwest of Chicago. Perched at the confluence of the Illinois and Fox Rivers, Ottawa is a historic, blue collar community of about 18,000 residents. It has a beautiful downtown and central park, boundless civic pride and a deep heritage in river and railroad transportation, agriculture and the trades. Its tourist brochures hail the city as the site of the first Lincoln-Douglas Debate. But to the people who grow up there, the success of its industrial arts and building trades program means more. This world-class  program, which had survived even as the trades have been stripped from the public curricula throughout the United States, is going dark.

LIke everything else Ottawa and similar small communities have lost through the decades, from its once thriving downtown retail base to its position as a major waterway transportation hub, Ottawa is now being stripped of a source of education, empowerment and pride that has kept young people engaged in its economy and civic life. It’s another example of the slow death by a thousand cuts of America’s small cities and towns. The local economy cannot provide the tax revenue required to support its services. In response, programs like the high school building trades program, which provides a pathway for students to find and create jobs and become tax payers, get cut.

I used to live in Ottawa. I was the editor of a small newspaper there. In that role, I got to know the city’s residents and its business and civic leaders. I always found Ottawa residents and leaders to be be passionate in their desire to see their community succeed and innovative in their plans to to make that success reality. That’s why it’s so saddening to see this program shut down.

Among the wonderful people and great potential in Ottawa, I also saw a huge problem: the continuing flight of the city’s young adults after they graduated high school and faced limited local opportunities for careers, fellowship and entertainment. Of those who wanted to stay, the skilled trades offered a solid path to a decent living. As Rowe said, in Ottawa, the trades matter.

In Ottawa, I know tradesmen who are single handedly rejuvenating historic downtown structures through hard work and innovative thinking. They are putting their own sweat and money into repurposing these tired buildings into dynamic new businesses. I know others who raise money for local programs to enrich Ottawa’s cultural life and promote civic pride. It is because of these tradesmen that Ottawa throws the best 4th of July celebration and fireworks display in its county, entirely funded through donations.

And I know many who make a good living in the trades.

Work is not something to escape

Many of us who read woodworking blogs, watch woodworking videos, chat on woodworking forums and spend our disposable income on woodworking tools are not tradesmen. We are white collar professionals who pursue woodworking as a hobby and avocation. Many of us daydream about making a living at “the craft.” Our romanticism can seem pretty condescending to real carpenters who have to work as hard getting the next job as they do on the job. They work fast to build things other people need, while we suffer over every joint while building what we want.

As a nation, we have devalued the trades, and we are paying a price for it. “Professionals” have always looked down on people who did Rowe’s dirty jobs. But starting in the 1950s, when marketers sold our parents and grandparents on the story that success equalled convenience and leisure, this trend has accelerated and the trades have declined. From a country of makers, we became a culture in which “making it” meant not having to know how to make things at all.

Or fix things.

We actually turned ineptitude into a badge of honor.

I was raised in a blue-collar family. My father was a mechanic and a carpenter and there was nothing romantic about it. The man washed his hands with gasoline. I was fascinated by what he did and wanted nothing more than to help him work. But I was told from childhood that I would be the one to “escape” that life. I would be the first to attend college and “make something of myself.” I did. Now I am a white collar professional who works with ideas. I like what I do, and it provides a good life for my family. But what do I to relax? I leave my desk and go to the basement and work with my hands.

As part of my grooming to “escape” the trades, I was sent to a college-prep high school. I didn’t have the opportunity to take shop class. It took me until my forties, when I decided to build a table because I couldn’t afford to buy one, to reconnect with my heritage of making things, and now I love it. Not everyone who attends a building trades program goes on to do the work professionally. But these programs teach valuable skills regardless, even if only to teach budding consumers to recognize quality and understand value in the made things they buy.

In Ottawa, it did more. It provided a way of life. It provided workers for Habitat for Humanity projects. It provided a sense of pride. Now Ottawa will have one less reason to be proud.

My training as a journalist has taught me that few stories have a right side and a wrong side. There are economic realities at work here. If a school district is $3 million in the hole, then something has to go. Federal education policy doles out funding to schools based on academic scores, not the dedication of its teachers, students’ facility in a trade, their happiness or the quality of life they attain. Federal funding is not based on local needs. It is a formula, and schools go against that formula at their peril.

So I don’t believe this is a simple story where the students are heroes and the school board is evil. I believe we live in a complex society that shows what it values by where it puts its money and what it teaches its children.

And what it doesn’t.

>> The mikeroweWORKS Foundation promotes hard work and supports the skilled trades. Visit the organization’s website to learn more. 

>> Sow your support for the Ottawa Township High School Industrial Arts Program by liking their Facebook page

>> Contact the Ottawa High School Board here.



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.





Dutch Tool Chest Part 5: Completion and thoughts

How to build a Dutch tool chest

The Dutch tool chest is complete.

The Dutch Tool Chest build is complete. What I thought would be a two-day project took me close to three months from start to finish. In fact, I still have one problem to solve, which I’ll get to later in case you don’t immediately notice it.

Missed the rest of the Dutch tool chest build? Start here.

Overall, I’m really happy with the outcome. The chest is attractive and functional, and it provided a great learning experience. It may be my favorite thing I own, and that really is what woodworking is all about to me… building beautiful, real things. It’s an honest, analog balance to living in a disposable and increasingly digital society. As someone who makes his living with words, numbers and ideas, whose only product is persuasion, I find it exciting, challenging and healing to pick up a tool and make something real. To see and touch and use something that I built is an awesome feeling. Two months ago, this thing lived only in my mind and in a stack of lumber at Lowes. Now it is a useful product. I think that’s friggin’ awesome, and I know I am not alone in this. Throughout this project, I sought and received help and encouragement from the good people at, and I am grateful for that support and the feeling of connection I have to a larger community of makers.

As far as the project itself, it is what I believed it would be: A great project for a beginning woodworker. It’s sufficiently challenging to build skills but simple enough that you won’t feel overwhelmed. It’s also extremely flexible, and while the project is basically just a box with a shelf in it, there is a lot of room for improvisation in the interior organization.

The interior tills and organization were the real learning experience. Almost each piece required two or three takes. And I’m still not happy with the saw till on the inside cover. As anyone with a good eye for detail will notice, the tills are open at the top, meaning the saws slip out when closed. This was the fourth attempt at a solution. The first three tries were closed, but did not have enough clearance to close the lid completely. The fact is, the chest is always open, so it’s not a problem. But I do plan on re-doing it so that it’s correct.

How to build a saw till in a Dutch tool chest

The interior lid saw tills took four tries, and they are still not correct.

As for tools, I kept my promise of building the chest exclusively with hand tools and period-correct fasteners. The only power tool I used was a drill to bore the dowel holes that connect the breadboard ends on the lid.

The surprise for me was how interested I got in hardware… something new for which to hunt. In addition to learning that vinegar is great for antiquing stainless steel, I also found that Kiwi-Strawberry Snapple is great at turning back the calendar on zinc plated hardware. (It’s the citric acid… so you can just use that.) My original intention was to find period-appropriate hardware, but everything I found was just too expensive for an inexpensive woodworking project, which this was supposed to be. I managed to locate some hand-cut nails on Ebay and slot head screws at my local Ace hardware. The handles are from Lowes. I antiqued the screws with vinegar and gave the handles a bath in the Snapple, and they look great.

All in all, a great project. I recommend it to anyone looking for a challenging but achievable beginner’s woodworking project.

Now… I have to go clean up three months worth of mess in my shop.

Read the full Dutch tool chest build here.

How to build a Dutch tool chest.

Just a small sampling of the wood shavings I created while building the Dutch tool chest. My planes got a good work out.

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 and his video “You Might be a Woodworker” for the inspiration for this essay… and my continuing with this whole woodworking thing.