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Earlywood: Peace Among Good Woodworkers
Publisher’s note: Good morning good woodworkers. Earlywood, published every Saturday, is a free excerpt from one of the thousands of pieces I’ve written since 1996. Sometimes it’s from a magazine article. Or a book. Or (in this case) a blog post from 2021. Each entry has been updated or annotated with some modern context or point of view. We hope you enjoy it.
There was a lot of stupid macho bullcrap in the shops where I worked, likely because of the stupid macho woodworkers who worked there. (Hiya, Meatfart! Remember me?)
The basic flavor of the crap: “If you can’t do this operation as well as I can, you ain’t a real woodworker.”
Sadly, we see a lot of students here who torture themselves when they plane up boards or chop dovetails. They want their parts to look like they came off the cover of a book or a video on YouTube – even though that level of perfection won’t affect the look of the assembled piece.
This blog post seeks to help you forget a few things – parlor tricks, mostly – that aren’t important. And perhaps it will help you enjoy the work a little more.
We all know there’s a sharpening cult that preaches that your edges should slice newspaper or shave your arm hair (I think the cult’s goal is keep us hairless and uninformed, like mushrooms). I honestly never have tested my edges with these methods. Instead, I just go to work.
If the tool does its job, then it is sharp.
Just remember the mantra of Tony Konovaloff: “Grind, hone, get back to work.” Sharpen and work. Sharpen and work. Do both, and you will get better at both.
A couple years ago I watched two carpenters repair old double-sash windows at Larry’s, our local dive bar. One of the carpenters ground the bevel of his chisel on the pavement and then polished it off on the granite step of the bar with the help of a loogie. Then he went back to work, doing a nice job.
Inspecting the Garbage
When you cook a fine meal, do you judge your success by the quality of the scraps of food in the sink and compost pile? Nope. Neither should you judge your woodworking by the thinness of the shavings from your handplane. Instead, focus on the work, not the waste. Take the thickest shaving you can manage while still having the wood’s surface look good.
Thin shavings are for occasional situations where the wood won’t behave with any other treatment.
Want to work five times faster? Shoot for a .005”-thick shaving instead of a lacy, lighter-than-an-angel-fart .001”.
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Inside, I’m a Wreck
I have never understood why people get so worked up about a little torn end grain inside a dovetail joint. The inside of a joint is a personal matter between you and the furniture conservator 300 years in the future.
When you chop out waste, and some of it is unsupported, you’ll get some torn-off chunks. It happens to me all the time. Sure, I could pare and pare and pare to get my insides looking as good as my outsides. But it’s pointless.
Knock out the waste, assemble the joint and spend all the time you saved making the show surfaces look nice.
When you get a little skill with a handplane, it frequently becomes a game to make your boards look perfect right from the plane. Sometimes, the wood behaves, and this is an easy task. But most of the time, wood demands the following regimen, which has been practiced for hundreds of years.
Plane the surface until you cannot make it look any better.
Scrape any surfaces that need help because of tear-out.
Briefly sand all surfaces with a fine abrasive to blend the planed and scraped surfaces.
Yes, planed surfaces look beautiful without finish. But after you put a finish on, things change. A well-sanded surface looks indistinguishable from a planed one.
I love my handplanes – they are faster than sanding in most cases. But I have no desire to plane a tabletop for two hours. That’s madness. Plane, scrape, sand and move on.
This is perhaps the king of the parlor tricks: piston-fit drawers, lids and trays. People get goofy-eyed when you close one drawer and another drawer is forced out by the movement of air.
Quite frankly, I have found that this is usually an indicator that the drawers are fit too tightly and will stick when the humidity level rises. Drawers should move smoothly during all seasons.
French Polished Drawer Bottoms
I don’t finish the insides of most case pieces that are hidden during use. The inside carcase of a chest of drawers doesn’t have to be finished. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be sanded. Put all of your effort into the surfaces that will be seen and touched by the user. The remaining surfaces can be right from the jack plane and be beautiful.
I know that some woodworkers will object to this blog entry because they are doing woodworking for pure enjoyment or therapy. So they are happy to sharpen to #10,000 grit, treat every surface like a show surface and generally go overboard.
And that’s great. Please go right ahead. Godspeed, even.
But a lot of us have limited time in the shop. Me, I have to make a living at it. So I am happy to save a few hours on every commission.
You might have children or grandchildren. Plus a difficult job. And you still want to get that dining table built by Christmas. In that case, the above “shortcuts” are perfectly acceptable in my shop and in the shops of many fine professionals.
Do the best work you can – and don’t make a clock out of everything.