The Quiet Shop

Because I have very young children, I have to work with very quiet tools. Routers and table saws make the babies scream, which is bad. I work with in the quiet shop, and I work almost exclusively with hand tools.

Location: Greater Northwest Chicagoland, Illinois, United States

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The fallacy of flat

I just read Adam Cherubini's column Arts and Mysteries in Popular Woodworking and it came as a revelation to me. A specialist in 18th century, traditional woodworking, he rails against efforts to make hand tools achieve machine-like tolerances for flat. This applies to the flatness of plane soles as well as the surfaces they create. While it may be possible for an handplane to equal or even eclipse the 'flattening' qualities of a machine, what is point? The wood needs to be made only flat enough to make a strong joint or a visually pleasing surface.
Early on I picked up the belief that my wood had to be perfectly flat and perfectly square or my joints wouldn't come together right. This belief bred fear - fear of trying to make dovetails, in particular. Before I tried a dovetail, I wanted to be sure my wood was milled perfectly square. Before it could be perfectly square I had to be sure my plane soles were perfectly square. Moreover, I had to be sure my blades were prefectly sharp and (not coincidentally) perfectly square. This, of course, meant that my water stones had to be perfectly flat. And on, and on, and on.
I spent the better part of a year learning how to make things flat, yet I never made a single piece of furniture. Flat is important, but beyond a certain point lies madness (and incredible expense).

Oak is brutal

Recently I've been struggling to create my first piece of bona fide furniture, and oak bench. I've been able to make half-blind dovetails in poplar wood, and so I thought it'd be no big thing to switch to oak. Wrong. I busted three teeth off my favorite Ryoba saw cross cutting a 13" wide piece of 4/4 oak. Ripping a three foot length of oak by hand worked up quite a sweat. It's taken me a month to simply mill the pieces - haven't even started the joinery yet. Phew!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

How did I get started?

I started woodworking as a distraction when my wife was pregnant with our second child. We had a new home, and I knew that no home was complete without a workbench in the basement. I worked at the public library at the time, so I checked out a book by Scott Landis call The Workbench Book. This really turned on a lightbulb for me.

The next step was to get the right tools - this is were problems began. All the plans called for table saws, routers, etc. I had none of these. With a new baby on the way, the budget was very, very modest. I had to borrow thirty year old hand tools from my dad. I found it very difficult to find any instructions on building things with hand tool.

However, hope came from Bob Key, who offered a simply bench made with 2x4's and hand tools. Perfect. It had massive mortise and tennon joints. By the time I was done, I was hooked on hand tools.

To do serious woodworking, however, one needs to be able to mill wood flat and square. To do that requires a table saw, jointer and planer ($1,000+). Or, it requires a Ryoba Saw ($40), a used jack plane ($35). The hand tools take practice, and shapening, and fettling, and more practice, but you cannot argue with the economics.


Monday, January 29, 2007

Kids and the shop

A big perk of a Quiet Shop is that my young kids can 'help.' Connor, my three year old, loves to cut wood and play with the vice. I let him play with block planes, ryoba saws, mallets, braces - lot of things. He loves playing with 'real' tools. Because I avoid the power stuff, nothing is loud or super dangerous. Admittedly, a ryoba saw or a plane blade can give a wicked cut, but they are far more forgiving than a tablesaw. Connor's learned to be very delicate in the shop. We made him a little workbench of his own for Christmas.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

What's a Quiet Shop?

A Quiet Shop, to me, is a workshop that co-exists peacably within a family home. I have two children (ages one and three). Located in the basement just behind the furnace and next to the washing machine, my shop has very few power tools. This allows me to putter at my bench in the evening without waking the children (and my wife) with a cacophony of screaming machines. It allows me to listen to Mozart rather than motors. The only sounds heard through the floor above are my occasional outbursts of profanity.