I'm a lucky guy. My family has allowed me to dedicate half our basement into a dedicated shop space, complete with a custom woodworking bench and a growing collection of tools. It's bright, clean (at least right now), and I'm slowly turning it into a functional workspace that will allow me to be as productive as possible.
But it took me a long time to get here. For nearly fifteen years, I worked out of dining rooms and back porches and portions of the garage, lugging my tools around in plastic totes and home center toolboxes, setting up shop on the washing machine, folding tables, and 1/2" plywood scraps screwed to 2x4s.
And, in the early days, it was that lack of a proper workbench that prevented me from thinking I could could use hand tools. Without a vise and hold downs, how could I safely secure my work for handplaning, chiseling, or sawing?The answer: a batten, which will take you 5 minutes to make and turns any flat surface into a work bench. Let's make one!
My wife is out of town this week.
When I'm home alone, I find myself more willing to work late into the evening with projects and activities, because I know I'm not missing out on important family time. When solo, I'd much rather stay out on a long bike ride or keep progressing on a woodworking project until bedtime than just sit by myself on the sofa.
So, such was the case when I found myself with a free evening. I didn't get started until 6:00pm or so, but knowing I had nowhere else to be and plenty of leftovers in the fridge, I set out to complete some shop storage projects for the wall just to the right of my bench. I'd been saving those blank spaces for nearly a year (you can find the clamp rack tutorials here, here, and here), reserving them for a special set of Woodpeckers straight edges and squares. These things are machined to extremely low tolerances, making them crazy straight and square, so making a secure place to store them helps them to stay precise. Plus, the red color matches the handles and jaws of my Bessey clamps, so combining the two was a total no brainer.
Chisels are probably the simplest of all woodworking tools, yet versatile enough that you'll likely use them on every project. To maintain the best cutting edge, they should be cared for and sharpened regularly: ground, honed, and polished until there's a razor fine edge that cleanly slices through the wood fibers.
So, why have mine been just sitting in a box for the last year and a half? I actually don't have an excuse. I mean, lack of proper storage is the answer, but why I haven't done anything about it since I finished my workshop build in late 2016... I really can't justify it.
So, over the weekend, I decided to do something about it, and built a simple chisel holder and hand tool rack to keep things organized, within reach, and to protect those finely honed edges. The design is adaptable enough that you can make one of any size, and put the whole thing together in under an hour.
If you want gap-free joinery and a perfect, long-lasting fit for both strength and aesthetics, precise measuring and marking of parts is essential. But, each step of the process — measuring, transferring marks, and cutting — can introduce tiny little errors of 1/64 or 1/32", which, over the course of a project, can add up significantly. So here's a simple little trick that takes no extra time, but creates much more accurate results.
I confess, I'm a shop rat. It doesn't matter what craft—shoemaking, blacksmithing, coffee roasting, even those little watch repair caves with the observation window in jewelry stores at the mall—if there are four walls, some tools, and skilled hands, I'm all over it like white on rice in a glass of milk on a paper plate in a snowstorm.
Other than drawing and writing, I've committed to the handicraft of artisan printing, slinging ink in the letterpress and screen printing arena at my main job. But when I can, I soak up other skills on a hobbyist level to round out my skillset, to apply lessons from other disciplines into my chosen craft, and to just have fun making stuff without the pressure of harnessing it to make a living.
Woodworking is one of those pools that I'm just now starting to wade into, and since I have no idea what I'm doing, I love watching the real deal to see how it's really done. To that end, I've curated the following list of my favorite woodworking accounts on Instagram.
Among all the items in my shop, the measuring, marking, and layout tools are probably my favorite. Mostly, I love how historic they are: dividers, squares, calipers, rulers, and marking gauges have all been around for centuries, remaining mostly unchanged in their design and intended purpose. And who doesn't love a clear, crisp, and accurate line to work to?
I promise, I really do like sports.
I number among my favorite smells in this world the scent of ice rink, and I find the pop of a baseball hitting a leather glove irresistible; I show my hometown roots in my collection of Baltimore Orioles hats, and I love the thrill of victory in sports films, even ones involving sports I couldn't care less about. But I confess, I'm a lackluster sports fan. Scores, standings, and statistics bore me to tears, and my attention span diminishes to nil within 5 minutes of a televised game.
Set me in front of an artisan plying his or her trade, though, and you'd think I were a pitching scout at a showcase tournament: rapt attention, soaking in every detail, occasional grins at particularly strong displays of good craft. Are you the same? Well, you're going to love this.
Most of us get into woodworking from a practical point of view: we need to work on something around the house, so we head to the home center and get tools to break down dimensional lumber and bang it back together. So you upgrade from a circular saw to a compound miter saw, and maybe even get yourself a pocket hole jig so you can hide your hardware from sight.
And then, as it inevitably happens, something changes in your point of view. You're now longer just doing "home improvement" or "building things"... you're now: a woodworker.
I have tried almost every solution to keep track of my hand screws. I've hung them on pegboard hooks. I've stashed them in wall-hung cubbies. I've stacked them on shelves. I've put them in designated plastic totes. All of which have resulted in: I hardly ever use my hand screws.
Which is a shame, because they're extremely versatile. They have a deep reach, and their wooden jaws are handy when you don't want to nick a blade or bit on something metal. So, last weekend, in my ever-continuing attempts to get my shop truly organized, I decided to build a wall-mounted hand screw organizer that would allow me to keep things in place and bring the clamps to the project when I need them.
Move over pegboard. When you've assembled a proper collection of hand tools, the best way to keep them safe, organized, and available within reach is a custom tool wall. Each item gets a designed holder that keeps like pieces together and accessible, allowing you to maximize your storage space.
Plus, let's admit it: they also look super cool.
A kitchen knife is an unusual tool, in that the point of contact between the tool and the medium upon which it works is actually extremely delicate. Imagine if a wrench were as delicate as an X-acto blade that had to be replaced regularly, or if bar clamps would routinely stop holding things in place because they became all wonky with use. Most non-cutting tools are blunt, hearty and reliable. But blades have to be cared for, stored carefully, and sharpened (somewhat) regularly.
But if there is an abused and neglected blade in your home that is used frequently but cared for rarely (okay, maybe not YOUR home, Mr./Ms. Attention-to-Detail––but the average home), it is the knives in your kitchen. Unless you are a professional ice sculptor or sword swallower, it is likely that the knives in your kitchen are the ones that get the most daily use. And if you are anything like me, it is way too easy to just grab one, use it, and put it back without special care for these knives. Despite my best intentions, it is easy for me to leave a dirty one on a cutting board, haphazardly toss one into the sink, clean in the dishwasher and store them in less-than-ideal ways (i.e., cluttered together in a drawer. I know. I'm an animal.)
Look, I love making furniture. I love sourcing the materials, planning out parts, and executing the joinery. But lately, I find myself increasingly drawn to the "other" things you can do with wood. What are the smaller, craft level projects that show off the beauty of working with natural materials, but can be completed in a weekend, or even a single sitting?
I'm a huge fan of having a few rows of dog holes in my workbench top. And, more than anything else, I use them to secure a holdfast - an ancient and genius piece of design that secures your work to the work surface with a simple tap from a hammer or mallet. When your ready to release it, just hit the back and it's free. Seriously - it's ten times fast than clamping, and you can fasten your work anywhere across the bench top. Brilliant.
To speed up the process even more, I wanted to come up with a permanent way to protect the wood from the force of the steel being banged into it. You can use a hardwood scrap between the holdfast and the workpiece, but I figured there's reason to spend twenty minutes once and protect my work forever. No digging around for scraps required.
Unless you're a millionaire, I always recommend going with used hand tools when getting started in woodworking. (Though, full disclosure, no millionaires have yet to ask my advice.) Vintage tools are plentiful, much less expensive, and depending on their age, usually a better, longer-lasting tool than you can buy at your local big box store. And the best part? Antique tools are more likely to be made in the USA or Europe, where they've been crafted from higher quality steels than modern tools from the home improvement center.
Over the weekend, I found this nice, broad 1 1/2" chisel at a favorite antique mall, with a mere $7.50 on the price tag hanging from the handle. It was in mostly great condition. The top and back had been coarsely ground a few times, and the bevel wasn't square to the sides, but the steel was in beautiful shape and the handle looks like it's never been pounded on.
Sharpening a blade at home - whether a pocket knife, a chisel, a kitchen knife, a hand plane blade, a pair of scissors - is a relatively simple process. In theory. In practice, it can be a bit difficult, since the essence of sharpening a blade is less about the ability to remove material and create/straighten a new edge. Rather - the trick is removing that material at the right angle to create the bevel that makes up a blade's sharp edge.
Earlier this year, I agreed to complete a woodworking project for my wife. Actually, I offered and volunteered myself to do it. She has a particular storage need in her office, and because of the weird layout, access issues, scale, etc, it's not something that exists anywhere. It has to be custom built, and installed in the space.
The truth is, I've been avoiding it. It's a big project, and it was easy to move to the bottom of the project list when it was the height of summer. We had houseguests coming in and out of our home, and the days were long and full of activity.
But now, that season is over, and it's time to start building. I realized this week why I've been putting it off: I'm afraid. It's beyond my skill level, and requires a lot of moving parts that need to line up, just so. In any other situation, this wouldn't be something I'd agree to do, because it's too big of a leap; I need to learn to do too many new skills inside the same project.
Earlier this week, for the Fourth of July holiday, some friends and I decided to try our hands at roasting a whole pig. We were cooking for 60-80 people, and wanted to do something more special than hamburgers and hot dogs, and figured: well, if we're going to try it, now is as good of a time as any.
We wanted to go with a Southern United States-style "pig picking," meaning lots of wood smoke, and cooking over low and slow temperatures. In order to get the whole animal ready to eat with such a gentle heat, we needed to start the night before. And that's where this story begins.
A functioning clamp rack. Every shop's gotta have one. "But, wait!" You say. "Isn't the easiest way to hold clamps just some 2x4s bolted to the walls, and maybe some holes and plumbing pipe inserted to hang the clamps on?" Yeah, perhaps. But, while that works if you have a ton of space, it's not the most efficient way to store clamps in a small shop. And I think of that as more of a "clamp hanging spot" than a proper organization system. Plus, if you already know about that trick, you certainly don't need me to give you a how-to.
Instead, I present this design: infinitely adaptable to any scale, and able to hold almost any type of clamp. You can build the whole thing with some scrap plywood, a jigsaw, and drill, and make one - no matter the size - in well under an hour.