Finally put this project to bed…Shaker inspired nightstands.

A few years ago we repainted our bedroom.  This prompted my wife to want a new headboard for our bed.  The old headboard was dark cherry and just didn’t fit with the room anymore, so I made a new one. Once that was done she observed that now the nightstands didn’t really work (also dark cherry), so I set to work on a new pair.  As it happened, I had just inherited a healthy stock of maple from my father and was looking for a suitable project.  Given the overall aesthetic of our home, I thought that a shaker/19th century vernacular style would be a good place to start with the design.  I’ve learned the hard way to always draw plans before the first cut to give one a a sense of size and proportion.

Shaker inspired, but also pretty reminiscent of the 19th and early 20th century vernacular style I was accustomed to seeing as a kid in rural Pennsylvania.

I started dimensioning the stock and gluing up the sides last winter–then spring hit and the carcasses sat in my shop while I went to work prepping the garden.

Lovely (and very hard) maple
Glue up

I thought that being on sabbatical last Spring would afford me all the time in the world to get these done–such was not the case!  As summer gave way to fall my wife became a little more impatient and openly speculated that perhaps it was time to start looking at furniture stores for a pair of nightstands.  OK, I got the message.  After Christmas I finally got back to it.

With the carcasses largely complete to this point it was a matter of assembling the face frames and building the drawers and inset panel doors.

While I am certainly not opposed to the use of power tools (never giving up my table saw or router!) I still enjoy prepping stock with hand tools–I can joint a board with this Stanley #8 pretty quickly. This piece of stock was resawn to make the book matched panels for the cabinet doors.
Drawer assembly–my dovetails are improving
Hand cut dovetail.  I cut them slightly proud then trim the ends of the pins and tails with a block plane before final sanding.
Final fitting of drawers, doors, and hardware

After drawer construction was complete (all hand cut dovetails) and the doors glued up I assembled both nightstands for a final fitting.  Originally I had intended to use Shaker style hardware–wooden knobs and latches.  My wife requested modern hardware in something like a brushed nickel finish.  Our compromise was antique salvage hardware from the 1920s or so: glass pulls for the drawers and steel Hoosier cabinet latches.  I like the look.  After fitting I removed all of the hardware, gave everything a final sanding to #220, and applied three coats of Tried & True Danish Oil burnishing with #0000 steel wool between coats.

I love this stuff

I’m pretty happy with how this project turned out.


Plenty of room for bed time reading

While I was at it I thought a “new” clock was a good idea as well.  I have and old Telechron given to me by a colleague that I love, but the alarm was always pretty temperamental.  So, I found another Telechron (circa 1940s) in need of a little TLC–it needed a new cord, some lubrication, and the case looked like it had been dropped down the stairs.

Cleaned, lubricated, new cord and the finish restored this vintage Telechron goes well with the maple nightstand.

Done and done.  Next project (after resharpening all of my chisels and plane irons that got beat up on the hard maple) is a reproduction of an 18th century sea chest.

The things we leave behind

I received a text message several weeks ago from a friend and former student: a friend of his was tasked with cleaning out her grandfather’s house in Watertown, Massachusetts which included a basement workshop.  Her grandfather had died at the end of 2019 at the age of 94. Unsure what to do with everything, she and the family decided to try to sell off his tool.  I said I’d be interested in taking a look; at the very least I could provide some guidance on what was of interest to collectors and what wasn’t.  Perhaps I’d even find a few things for myself.  What I didn’t expect was to be as affected as I was by digging through the now quiet workshop of Charles Paone, a man I never met.  His friends and family called him Charlie.

Mr. Paone’s workshop was located in the basement of the modest cape style home (circa 1940s or 50s) adjacent to a  basement den paneled in tongue and grooved knotty pine that instantly betrayed (in a very familiar and for me pleasing way) the age of the the home.  The shop itself was filled with stray off cuts of lumber and shelves full of stains and varnishes.  All around were empty Chase and Sandborn and Folgers coffee cans and Prince Albert tobacco tins now filled with an assortment of nuts and bolts and wood screws.  I immediately thought of my grandfather’s garage and the baby food jars filled with hardware. I spotted a few tools that were of interest to me but I mostly was interested in learning about the man who spent his Saturday afternoons and evenings after work building and fixing things at a workbench still strewn with the tools and clamps he used on his last project.  I talked to his granddaughter a little about tools, but mostly I asked about him.

What I learned is that Mr. Paone was born in Watertown in 1925.  He was a veteran of WWII where he served in the south pacific with the US Army–it is likely he lied about his age to enlist early, a not so uncommon practice!  Following the war he built his home in Watertown where he raised his family and worked for Waltham Millwork Corporation.  What I found fascinating was the number of home built power tools–belt sanders, bench grinders, and router tables.  I picture him sitting with a set of plans from a 1950s Popular Mechanics and adapting an old washing machine motor to run a stationary belt sander.  I found a couple of piles of old electric motors patiently awaiting their reuse.

Most of the old power tools are of greater interest to a collector than they were to a collector and user like me.  There was one major exception, which was a Craftsman model 103.23620 bench-top drill press.  As best as I can figure, it was produced sometime between about 1947 and 1951.  I plugged it in and it fired right up and ran smoothly. I loaded the drill press and an assortment of hand tools into my car and spend a bit of time chatting with Mr. Paone’s granddaughter.  It was clear that they were close. Before I left I spotted a picture of Mr. Paone and his wife June on their wedding day and quickly snapped a pic.

Paone (2)
Charlie and June sometime in the 1940s

I got the drill press home and gave it a through cleaning and lubrication.

Back on my home workbench


Craftsman: The tools that launched a thousand home workshops

After some consideration, I made the decision to replace the motor.  Originally I had planned on just replacing the cord, but further inspection revealed deteriorating insulation inside the motor; it also emitted a very strong odor of ozone.  I don’t think it was original to the drill as the manual claims it had a 1/3 hp motor from the factory, while the one mounted to the drill when I brought it home was 1/4 horse.  I upgrade to a sealed 1/3 hp motor from Grizzly Industrial.

The old General Electric 1/4 hp motor
The new motor mounted easily and is lighter and more powerful.

She now runs like a top and I couldn’t be happier–I’ve wanted a drill press for awhile.  What I got was even better: a drill press and a story.

I picked up a few other odds and ends as well.

Stanley #99 side rabbet plane
Stanley #71 router plane
Fitchburg Tool Co. combination square. I don’t know the date, but what little info there is on this company indicates it went out of business in the 1950s.

I was certainly very happy about finding these tools, but being there in Charlie’s shop also made me feel a sense of sadness and loss.  Mr. Paone marks the passing of a generation of men and women who fought their way through the deprivations of the Great Depression and then fought their way through the horrors of the Second World War in Europe, the south pacific, and on the home front.  After that, to have the chance to own a modest home on a modest street and to have a small space to work with your hands and a place to raise your family must have felt like a profound luxury.  As we get further away from the hardships and triumphs of Charlie’s generation we forget that there is not just happiness but also nobility in a modest life lived simply and well.  Men like Charlie made great sacrifices and asked for little in return but a little shop in the corner of the basement where all of the destruction he had witnessed could be negated but the small but powerful act of creating.  His shop was my grandfather’s shop.  His shop is my father’s shop.

As I left, I promised Mr. Paone’s granddaughter that I would not sell the items I had bought, but rather, I would honor him by using them to build things for my family and loved ones.  I am proud to have such an opportunity.  Thank you, Charlie, for everything you have done–I only wish we had had the chance to meet.




About a week after I visited Watertown and returned with some treasures from Charlie’s shop I received a large envelope in the mail.  Inside were the original owner’s manual for the drill press as well as the funeral card pictured above.  There was also a very kind letter from Charlie’s granddaughter thanking me for taking such an interest in her grandfather, “his craft, and his life.”  The honor was mine.  I will put the funeral card up in my shop as a reminder of Charlie, a man I’ve never met but have enjoyed getting to know.

Father’s Day Repost: Here Is the Most Important Thing Pete Lukens Taught My Brother and Me

My dad was in the Army and served in Vietnam in the mid 1960s.  In typical Pete Lukens fashion he doesn’t discuss his military service much, but not because he is unwilling to; he has always answered any question I ever asked after all.  Rather, it is just his way to quietly do what needs to be done, no matter how difficult, without asking for much in the way of recognition. A story my grandmother told me several times is that my father never even told anyone when he was coming home from Vietnam; he just showed up on my grandparent’s doorstep in North Wales, Pennsylvania one day. He did his duty, came home, and moved on with his life, career, and family.  Doing one’s duty without complaint or expectation of reward is a good quality to emulate.  No doubt an important lesson for a young man, but it is not the most important thing I learned from him.

I also learned from my father to always have a keen argument prepared if you want to debate because opinions are worthless if you haven’t done the hard work of crafting a strong case.  I guess it is of no surprise what I do for a living and that I enjoy a good debate.  Most of all, he taught me that it is worth knowing things just for the sake of knowing; learning is intrinsically, not just instrumentally good. Being prepared and educated and logical is a good quality to emulate.  It is a very important lesson that I have learned from him, but it is not the most important lesson

I could probably go on and on about several more such things to be admired and emulated, but I want to really discuss is why teaching my brother and me how to build and fix things wound up being the foundation of greater virtue.


Building and fixing sounds secondary to duty and preparedness and logic and all the other virtues, right? Let me explain further then, because building and fixing is what has most often allowed me to exercise those virtues.

Clearly, there are some practical implications to knowing one’s way around a table saw and framing square:

  • I rarely if ever need to hire a contractor to work on my home which has saved us tens of thousands of dollars over the past few years
  • If and when I do hire a contractor I can tell a good one from a bad one and know if they are trying to rip me off
  • I can build things for my home that are completely unique
  • Having carpentry/home improvement skills was a great side hustle when I was in college and graduate school
  • I am pretty sensitive to the charge that academics are effete and lacking any practical skill so I like to maintain a pair of callused, working hands
  • I like being able to assist friends and family when they need help with their homes
  • I like to think that I am impressing my wife with my construction worker like manliness though I’m not sure she sees it that way
  • Working with my hands is entirely different from what I do professionally and is therefore a nice diversion

If we consider just these instrumental things then it would seem that Pete Lukens passed on to my brother and me some practical skills and perhaps a good hobby that makes us useful.  It is however much deeper and more important than that. The most important thing that Pete Lukens taught his boys was not the manual skills per se, but rather the will and desire to exercise those skills.

The most important thing that Pete Lukens taught his boys was to be spirited men.

To be clear,  I’ve never heard my father use the term “spirited men;” I am borrowing the term from Matthew Crawford because it ably captures what my father taught us. To be a spirited person does not mean to be loud or ostentatious.  Anyone who knows my father knows that he is certainly not those things.  Rather, the spirited person is one who is engaged in the struggle for individual agency in the face of a world that is hyper-specialized, hyper-technological, hyper-consumerist, and hyper-disposable.  In short, and to borrow another phrase from Crawford, my father taught us the skills and more importantly the will to be “the master of our own stuff.”

 “It is characteristic of the spirited man that he takes an expansive view of the boundary of his own stuff—he tends to act as though any material things he uses are in some sense properly his, while he is using them—and when he finds himself in public spaces that seem contrived to break the connection between his will and his environment, as though he had no hands, this brings out a certain hostility in him.” (Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, 2009).

I relate to this hostility as I find more and more things in my life designed to prevent me from knowing how they work or that put their functioning outside my command.  I also feel this hostility whenever I encounter building permit rules that seek to take away my ability to work on my own home so that I must hire it out to a professional who may or may not exercise the same care that I do. It is a constant assault on our agency, and it is the nature of the spirited person to resist that assault and to fight to maintain his or her self-reliance.

“A decline in tool use” writes Crawford “would seem to betoken a shift in our relationship to our own stuff: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair.”

Remaining spirited in the face of increasing passivity and dependence is a good in itself, but there is more to my father’s lessons on building and fixing than the bulwark it has afforded me against the feelings of lost agency or decline into disposability and consumerism.  Surely I could be content just knowing that I can do a thing.  Perhaps my family would derive a sense of security just knowing that should a pipe spring a leak or a toilet not flush or a light need replacement I could do it in a pinch.  After all, as two professionals, we could argue that it is good I have such “emergency knowledge” but that my time and my wife’s time is better dedicated to activities that further our respective careers.  Hire a plumber.  Hire and electrician. Hire a carpenter.  Our elite educations and career choices have disburdened us from having to do home repairs.  I think that this is probably a common refrain these days, and is probably why I know very few people now who even mow their own lawns.  I just can’t get behind this sort of reductionist economic argument though, and I cringe at the idea that my education or economic station have somehow disburdened me.  It is a cringe worthy idea mostly because I don’t find deploying these manual skills to be a burden.  The reason why needs some explanation.

What my father taught my brother and me as did every parent who ever handed down these skill to his or her children is that value is not just in the outcomes we achieve like a light that works or a lawnmower that now runs or the utility of a new built in bookcase of our own design.  There is value in the activity itself separate from the material results. Here I will lean on (as Crawford does) the work of Alisdair MacIntyre.  In After Virtue MacIntyre differentiates between goods that are internal and external to a practice.  External goods are easy to grasp as they are the tangible products which I may produce myself or I may have produced by paying another: a shelf, a new bathroom, etc.  However, there are also goods that are internal to a practice that are available only to the person who engages in the practice.  Regardless of the finished product (or even lack thereof) there is the satisfaction of exercising a skill like crafting wood or fixing a door that won’t close properly or installing a tile back splash.  There is a sense of accomplishment available only to the craftsperson.  More than that, there is the opportunity our labor gives us to engage with others and contribute in some meaningful way; it was a chance for my brother and me to spend time with our father and a chance for me to spend time with my wife and daughter or an opportunity to help a friend or neighbor fix their house.

To be sure, there are economic benefits to not having to hire a contractor and being able to build “sweat equity” in one’s home, but to me those are secondary to what working with my hands allows me to express.  For instance, ever since we bought our house my wife has complained that her closet was dark and difficult to access (which it was) so I renovated it along with the rest of the bedroom.  I guess I could say I love you by buying some flowers or a Valentine’s day card, but I would rather build something—surely this also meets the definition of a good internal to a practice!

Politicians, philosophers, and sociologists across the political spectrum have gotten a lot of mileage out of bemoaning the increase in listlessness and decline of spiritedness in American society, especially among its young men.  The decline is epitomized in consumerism and passive consumption without accompanying production.  What some have termed decadence can on a personal level be understood as a lack of spiritedness.  I don’t think my father ever put in quite these terms, but implicit in what he taught my brother and me is best captured by Raymond John Baughan.

“Run, climb, work, and laugh; the more you give out, the more you shall receive. Be exhausted, and you shall be fed. Men do not really live for honors or for pay; their gladness is not in the taking and holding, but in the doing, the striving, the building, the living. It is a higher joy to teach than to be taught. It is good to get justice, but better to do it; fun to have things but more happy to make them. The happy man is he who lives the life of love, not for the honors it may bring, but for the life itself. (The Uniscovered Country, 1946)”

That, my friends is the quintessence of spiritedness.  We do things not for reward or recognition, but because of the good internal to the practice: the satisfaction of doing and giving. Along the way to learning that lesson I have learned many other great lessons: craftsmanship, thoughtfulness, preparedness, self reliance, and a keen grasp of my duty to family and community. The spirited person excitedly looks upon a problem or challenge as an opportunity to coolly think through a solution and to patiently, thoughtfully, carefully, and yes even lovingly, see that solution to completion. When we complete a task, not mater what that task is, we take satisfaction not merely in the products of that task alone, but also in the doing that has permitted us to be our best selves. So thank you Dad for teaching Mark and me to be spirited men.  I am teaching Elsie to be a spirited woman.

An I bet you thought you were just teaching me righty tighty lefty loosey and to measure twice and cut once.

Reflections on Career and Making Time–A Lesson from the Great Bill Watterson

I’m not a professional gardener or carpenter or furniture maker or restorer.  These things are my passion, but they are not my job.  In my professional life, I am an associate professor at a small state university in Massachusetts where I teach courses in public policy, biomedical ethics, and social research.  I do love teaching, and I also really enjoy the time I spend working with ethics boards within various medical systems.   It is a good job that I mostly enjoy and that affords me a decent salary, benefits, pension, and flexible schedule.  I also get a lot of freedom, which I appreciate.  How I got here deserves some explanation

A small state school in eastern MA was not what I was trained for–I was trained for a position at a major research University.  That I didn’t end up working at an R1 (that is, a PhD granting research institution) surely caused some disappointment among the faculty and deans at the University of Pennsylvania where I earned my masters degrees and doctorate.  With all due respect to my beloved professors, I don’t care–I made the right choice.

Life at an R1 university is not for the faint of heart.  Your life is tied to an endless cycle of funding proposals, data collection, conference presentations, and publishing, publishing, publishing.  Some of that is fine, but at that elite level, the demands for funding and publications affords one little time for other things like, for instance, growing, building, and restoring, not to mention family.  No thank you.  I received such a great education and my training as a researcher was second to none.  I also made a lot of close friends and I remain close to several professors whom I admire deeply.  I have no regrets about going to an elite graduate program, but I also have no regrets about turning my back on that particular rat race when it came time to find a faculty position.

I have been enjoying my sabbatical and reading things unrelated to my professional life (don’t be alarmed, I have also wrapped up some research projects).  Today, I read through Bill Watterson’s (he of Calvin & Hobbes fame) commencement address at Kenyon College in 1990 and it beautifully expressed the way I think about my own career and extra-curricular pursuits.

“But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success.”

Thankfully, I have had the opportunity to allow my interests and ambitions to spread out over many areas. To be sure, many are linked to my professional life, but many are not except, perhaps, in a very abstract sense.  I am an ambitious person and I there are few things I love more than tackling an ambitious project; that should be obvious given the things I write about her.  However, my ambitions are diffuse rather than focused.  Does that make me a bad academic?  Perhaps in the R1 sense of the term.  Does it make me a happy person?  Absolutely it does.

“Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.”

I would not consider my job undemanding; being a good teacher (and that is a title I will claim) takes work, as does publishing and consulting.  But I get his point.  Again, there were some folks at my graduate program who really did not understand why I didn’t want to go to an R1.  It was hard to explain that there were other really, really important things I simply refused to sacrifice in order to get there.  I don’t know if that makes me a flake.

You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

I’ve written before that people often say to me things like “how do you find the time” or “I wish I had time to work in the garden.”  For one, I don’t spend several hours a day watching TV or scrolling through a Facebook feed as the average American does. Secondly, I consider things in terms of opportunity costs–a tip I learned by reading the chapter “economy” in Thoreau’s Walden many years ago.  I want a bigger house or a newer car or a few thousand dollars more in my salary.  O.K., what do I give up to get those things?  Time away from my family? Less time to teach my daughter how to use hand tools? Must I give up volunteering at my daughter’s school or serving on the board of my local farmer’s market or homeless shelter?  Do I need to cut back on how much time I spend in my garden or at my workbench or writing this blog? Is it worth giving up those things in order to have a bit more money?  The answer is usually no.

This is not to imply that I am endorsing hedonism.  I am doing no such thing.  In fact, I believe that the whole point of life is to be spirited and useful and not just self indulgent.  I am simply saying that the demands of more work and greater efficiency in order to pursue yet probably never achieve an artificially narrow definition of success and happiness forces us to disregard all of the manifold ways that we may contribute to the welfare and happiness of our family, our community, our environment, and yes, ourselves.

“To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”

And indeed I am.




Going Zero Waste: Furthering the Link Between Growing, Restoring and Environmental Conservation

Zero waste sounds like a lofty goal, and it is, but rather than be intimidated by it we should remember that “perfect is the enemy of the good,” or perhaps even the possible.  So while we (and this is a team effort between my daughter Elsie, wife Hilary, and me) we strive to do our best, we recognize that though we may not be perfect we can always do better than we do now.  So, when we say zero waste, we really mean minimal waste. We are taking steps toward dramatically reducing 1. the waste we put out for curb collection, and 2. our use of plastics overall.  This second point is important given the current crisis in plastics recycling.  Hilary is the one who has planted the seed for our family, but we all share a deep concern over environmental issues so she didn’t have to work too hard to get Elsie and me in board.  My passion for building and growing and restoring is inseparable from my environmentalism and is  rooted in my concerns about the impact of modern technology and consumer culture.  Our move to zero waste will, I think, intersect with woodworking, gardening, and restoring is interesting ways: these activities will help our efforts in some ways (restoring means reusing, and the composting we do significantly reduces waste), but will be challenging in other ways (the dreaded black plastic nursery pot for instance).

There are many really great blogs that cover zero waste living.  I’m partial to this one, but there are lists of other “top” zero waste blogs that give great tips on minimizing waste in the home: using travel mugs, switching away from liquid soaps and shampoos, buying in bulk, etc.

IMG_1401 (2)
We’ve been slowly moving toward zero waste for some time; years ago I switched to using shaving soap rather than cans of foam or gel and stopped using disposable plastic razors in favor of a classic safety razor.  This is a 1960’s Gillette I found at a garage sale. Yes the blades are disposable, but being steel, they can also be collected in a metal razor safe and easily recycled.

We are progressively adopting these practices in the home, but I’m mostly interested here in considering the unique advantages and challenges for gardeners. Later on, I’ll tackle zero waste issues in the wood shop.

Advantages and challenges

In some ways, we have already been operating on a zero waste philosophy.  Most gardeners do. First off, we compost everything we can from food scraps to  the cardboard rolls from toilet paper.  Very little from the kitchen goes down the garbage disposal.  Obviously, we don’t compost meat or grease, but just about any other scraps from the kitchen are fare game.  That equals a significant waste stream reduction.

There are however two  big sources of plastic in the garden that present challenges: the plastic bags in which compost, mulch, and potting soil are packaged, and the plastic pots that come from the nursery and plastic trays and cells that are used for propagation.  Eliminating these sources of plastic is challenging, if not impossible given our current infrastructure.  Here are the ups and downs and challenges and victories of going zero waste in the garden:

1. We produce a good bit of our own compost, and when we run out, we have the luxury of access to free municipal compost through the Marblehead transfer station.  It’s a great deal if you don’t mind filling up your buckets and trugs and hauling them in your own car (and I don’t mind, which is why my wife drives a new car while I drive a used one).

2.  I order my bark mulch in bulk and have it delivered, or I use leaf mold which I produce myself.  I like to use a coarse wood chip for the paths in the vegetable garden, and I also get that for free from the transfer station (see above).

3. Potting mix/peat/vermiculite.  Well, there is no getting around this one.  Until garden centers start selling in a “fill your own container” format, I am forced to purchase it in 1, 2 or 3 cubic foot bags.  Now, being that we are a seaside town our transfer station has a special drop off area for plastic boat wrap.  I am am still waiting on an answer at to whether I can deposit plastic soil and peat bags there.

4. Plant pots. This one is another tough one.  New plants, shrubs, and trees come in black plastic pots that range in size from small plugs and “six packs” to 5 gallon.  If you are going to buy new plants, there is really no getting around the fact that they will come in plastic–occasionally you will find peat pots, but mostly it is plastic.  The best bet is to recycle these pots as if you can (there are challenges for commercial recyclers) or reuse them at home for plant propagation over and over and over until they they break (then recycle them if you can).  If you are buying  trees or shrubs, try to buy them “B&B” (balled and burlaped), all of which goes in the ground and decomposes. I am also told that Lowe’s will take nursery pots for reuse and recycling (assuming you live near one).

5. Our goal should be not just to reuse or recycle, but to minimize our use of plastic pots all together.  It is great if we can recycle plastic, but there is still a large energy input required to do so. For propagating at home, try to use alternatives to plastic pots.  Currently I am experimenting with peat plugs, cow pots, and paper pots in place of the flimsy plastic cell trays that have a limited life span.

Paper pot maker by Secrets du Potager.  Paper by the Marblehead Reporter

6. The old adage of “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” still applies.  In the past I’ve purchased I don’t know how many plastic watering cans only to have them split, break, or otherwise fail after a distressingly short period of time.  No more.  Now I only buy used/vintage galvanized cans.  Occasionally I have some repairs to do, but they last for years and years, and when they finally rust through, steel is readily recyclable.

I picked up this old watering can for just a few bucks because the copper diffuser on the head was bent and split in a couple of spots. Some light hammering, bending, and a little bit of soldering (visible in this picture as a blob of silver) returned it to service. Do I get bonus points for recycling rain water?

7. As money permits, purchase high quality tools once and you will likely never have to purchase them again.  That means less going to the landfill.  For instance, a pair of Felco #2 pruners may run you double the cost (they retail for about $50) of a middle of the road pair but they are very durable, easily resharpened, and most parts (most importantly the blades) are replaceable.  This means you don’t need to pitch them altogether and buy new pair if one component happens to wear out.  I’ve had mine about 15 years and they have seen heavy if not downright abusive use; I’ve replaced the blade once at a cost of about $10. I keep them sharp, lubricated, and clear of sap, and with some basic routine maintenance they work as well now as they did brand new. And by the way, I would not have even had to replace the blade had I not used them to cut some hard steel wire that damaged the edge beyond what I could grind out.  The other lesson is to not (overly) abuse your tools.

8. I’ve stopped buying plastic plant labels and switched to using wood or bamboo.  Both materials will biodegrade in the compost pie, though the bamboo will probably do so a bit faster.

Moving forward

The point here is not to be self righteous, but rather to talk about some of the successes we have had–this is tempered by the challenges we face and the places we fall short.  In the end though, it makes little sense to restore our backyard habitat or grow our own vegetables if we don’t do our utmost to reduce the negative externalities those activities produce.  I’ll continue to try new things and consult with others to find ways of reducing the waste produced by our gardening and thereby increasing the net benefit of our efforts.  I’ll be sure to report back on how the paper pots hold up.  Next year I will be creating a new garden area, and one of the ways I am going to minimize the use of plastic is to propagate most of the new perennials myself.

This fall I will put the garden to bed and return to my wood shop.  Expect another post looking out ways of reducing the waste stream from my shop. Gardening, building, and restoring should be acts of environmentalism, activities that that engender thoughtfulness and care and are a bulwark against mindless consumption   To minimize the environmental impact associated with these activities is not just something nice to do, but rather, goes to the core of the philosophy behind those activities.


Sometimes I’m Man-Dumb

Every sitcom and commercial for the past 50 years has used the old trope of the man too stubborn or proud to read instructions or ask for directions, usually resulting in some sort of comic folly. Lets call it “man dumb.” Granted, I hate to trade in sexist tropes, but there really is no other way to put it: sometimes I’m also man dumb.   I don’t always ask for directions or read instructions when I should.  Case in point is my table saw.

A few years ago I got a Grizzly G0771 hybrid table saw. It was a good choice for me as it struck a good balance between the substance of a cabinet saw and the mobility of a contractor saw.  In my small shop, I need to be able to wheel larger tools out of the way.


And while I love to use hand tools, I desperately wanted a table saw and was willing to sacrifice some of the precious real estate in my basement.  I assembled it and have run a lot of wood through it.  It worked okay but not great.  I thought perhaps I had been spoiled by using my father’s heavy duty cabinet saw.  You see, I assembled the saw without ever opening the owner’s manual.  That’s right, man-dumb.

After three years I finally opened the owner’s manual and went page by page measuring, squaring and adjusting (plus had the blade resharpened by Forrest Industrial).  It wasn’t that off just a 1/16th here and 1/32nd there.  My lord what a difference.  It cuts straight, square and smooth. It really is a very good saw; the only “upgrade” I have made was a zero clearance throat plate from Highland Woodworking. Had I read the manual three years ago when I first set it up I could have saved myself so much hassle. So, Grizzly, you have my apologies for the light swearing that went on for the past few years–in reality, the problem was the user, not the manufacturer.

Another Toasting Box

I’ve been busy in the shop this past month building another toasting box for my friend Jay.  The box is built out of solid mahogany; there is not plywood or laminates.  There is a humidor compartment that is lined with Spanish cedar and held closed by maple toggles.

This is the first time I have used mahogany in a project.  It has its challenges: open grain and it splinters and splits easily and it also loves to cup.  It is a softer wood and so easier to work with hand tools–I met little resistance while sawing and chiseling the dovetails.  When you add an oil finish, the results are stunning.


My dovetails are improving


Just waiting on a few final bits of hardware and this one will be all wrapped up.

Learning the Dovetail Part II

You can create perfect dovetail joints time and time again if you don’t mind spending a few dollars on a router and jig.  It is a really tempting proposition, because as I have been discovering, to execute a dovetail well by hand requires a lot of practice.  Saws drift and chisels can get away from us.  Making the dovetail by hand is intriguing though because for all its strength and beauty it can be effectively executed with just a few basic tools.  In other words, if you are willing to practice, and willing to accept something a bit less than perfection, you can build beautiful and strong joints without purchasing a lot of expensive equipment.  The other thing I’ve learned is that the dovetail joint rewards patience and punishes the impatient so if, like me, you need to be reminded on occasion to slow down and act deliberately and patiently then it is worth spending some time learning how to handmade the dovetail joint (and skip the router). Like many woodworkers, I can attribute my learning to Chris Becksvoort whose many articles and videos were my guide.

Tools of the trade

There are a few tools that are critical to a properly executed dovetail, and a few that are nice to have because they make the job a bit easier.  I’ll start with the necessities:

  1. Dovetail saw:  A dovetail saw is simply a back saw with a thin kerf that is designed for rip cuts.  There is a wide range of prices on these from a few dollars used to a few hundred for one from Bad Axe Toolworks.  I purchased mine from Lie-Nielsen tools and can attest to its quality.  Beautifully made and razor sharp this saw effortlessly cuts through hardwoods and leaves a clean, straight cut.
  2. Chisels: A couple of sizes for removing material between the pins and tails. I use Stanley 750 socket chisels.  They do O.K., though an upgrade to Lie-Nielsen chisels may be in my future as the hard maple I favor does a number on the edges.
  3. Marking gauge (or two):  I use the Veritas marking gauge.  It does exactly what it supposed to do and does it well.  I have used, but don’t like, traditional marking gauges that rely on a pin or nail to do the marking.  I have found that they often tear or chatter when marking and are harder to keep on a straight line. The marking wheel on the Veritas cuts nicely and leaves a thin, straight line.
  4. Square: You need to be able to transfer markings and so you need a square.  It is helpful to have a couple sizes
  5. Sliding bevel or dovetail layout tool: This simply helps you lay out tails that have consistent angles.
  6. Marking tools: To layout the tails I use a mechanical pencil with .007 lead. When marking out the pins I like to use a knife.

These are mostly basic tools that any woodworker–even a beginning woodworker–should have laying about.  The only new tools I acquired were the dovetail saw and the Veritas dovetail saddle marker.

Nice to have but not necessary
  1. Veritas dovetail saddle marker:  This thing makes transferring line a breeze
  2. Fret saw or coping saw: Some instructional videos have you use a fret or coping saw to remove the waste between pins and tails.  I tried this approach but was not terribly successful in defining a straight and clean shoulder.  I prefer to use a chisel

Making the dovetail

Before attempting my first dovetail I spent about an hour practicing with my saw.  I laid out several angled pencil lined on the ends of scrap wood and cut over and over until I had a real feel for my saw and could consistently cut a straight line along the pencil marks.

In terms of layout and execution, I will refer you to the sources I used rather than recount the steps here.  Chris Becksvoort‘s articles and videos are really goodBecksvoort instructs one to cut the tails on two boards at a  time. I found that I cannot cut as accurately when I do that so I cut one set of tails at a time.  Other than that, I followed his instructions closely and after cutting away at lots of scrap poplar I was ready to give it a go on some nice hardwood.

My first project was a gift for a good friend of mine who is a fellow Scotch aficionado and camping enthusiast.  I built him a toasting box. Tradition holds that a successful day in the field, on the stream, or a quiet evening gathered around the campfire should be celebrated with a toast among friends.  The toasting box and is designed to safely hold and transport a favorite libation and glasses from home to the field. This one is made of maple and finished with Danish Oil.


The dovetails aren’t perfect, but they are pretty good and overall I’m happy with the outcome, as was my friend for whom I made it.  I am certain my next effort will be a little better as will the dovetails I cut after that and after that and so on and so forth.  Practice and patience.  IMG_0875


A gentle reminder…

…that nobody is perfect.  As I teach myself to hand cut dovetails (with the help of Mr. Becksvoort’s excellent articles on the subject) and prepare to use them in some projects I encounter the same frustrations every woodworker encounters: splits, miscuts, and the sinking feeling that you have ruined a beautiful and not so cheap piece of hardwood (and set back your project timetable).

The feeling of inadequacy in one’s own work is often exacerbated by reading blogs and articles by modern masters or about past masters.  I recently watched a video by Chris Becksvoort on how to hand cut a dovetail.  Pedagogically it was a really good video–I walked away with a lot of tips that made my dovetails better.  However, I also found myself seesawing between saying “hey I can do that” and “man, my dovetails will never look that good.” Seeing the precision produced by woodworking machines and router jigs deepens the sense of a lack of skill for those of use that work mostly with hand tools. Machine cut dovetails are incredibly tight and precise.

I read with delight and some sense of self pardon an article on Eclectic Mechanicals about uncovering mistakes in pieces of Shaker furniture, a style of furniture that has long inspired woodworkers and stood as an apogee of American furniture design and construction.  I, for one, really appreciated the reassurance.  I am working on a gift for a friend’s birthday that involves dovetail joinery.  My dovetails are getting pretty good.  Not perfect, but pretty good.  I am certain my friend will appreciate the gift even with some errors here and there.

Workmanship of Risk

I recently started following the blog over at Lost Art Press. Given my interest in both craftsmanship and the philosophy of technology I was intrigued by two recent posts discussing the work of David Pye, specifically his distinction between the “workmanship of risk” and the “workmanship of certainty.”   Christopher Schwarz over at Lost Art argues that this is a meaningless distinction, and in a later post argues that the language we use in making these distinctions disparages the work of those who employ woodworking machinery.  I disagree that the distinction between workmanship of risk and workmanship of certainly is unimportant: there is a difference and as a philosophical construct it is worth discussing, though I think Pye misses the mark.  As to Mr. Schwarz’s larger argument, he is spot on: the important thing is making, and the distinction that Pye makes cannot and should not prompt us to value some making over other types of making.

Mr. Schwartz author claims that if someone is writing about craftsmanship, you can bet that there is  a copy of Pye’s book is nearby.  Well, I have to admit that for all of my interest in craftsmanship and the role of technology, I have never read Pye. So, I looked for a copy at my university’s library, but they did not have it so I got through interlibrary loan from a local art school. My own thinking about the philosophy of technology and the role of technology in woodworking and my life in general is more informed by Albert Borgmann, David Strong, and Carl Mitcham. So, I got my hands on a copy of The Nature and Art of Workmanship.

Workmanship of Risk vs. Workmanship of Certainty

Pye’s project is to draw a distinction between what he sees as an essential difference between production by the hand of a skilled craftsman vs. those produced by mechanized or automated processes. Pye describes the workmanship of risk as:

“workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity and care which the maker exercises as he works.”

Pye contrasts this with what he terms the workmanship of certainty:

“With the workmanship of risk we may contrast the workmanship of certainty, always to be found in quantity production, and found in its pure state in full automation.  In workmanship of this sort the quality of the result is exactly predetermined before a single saleable thing is made…but all the works of men which have been most admired since the beginning of history have been made by the workmanship of risk.”

Schwarz argues that this is a false distinction:

“I think the amount of risk between things Pye describes as “risk” and those that are “certain” is so small in reality that they are useless distinctions. In general, making things involves risk. We try to control it at the workbench and on the factory floor. But ultimately – and this is important to me – hand processes and machine processes are ruled by the same narrow factors.”

Mr. Schwarz makes that case that all making involves some risk and that certainty is illusory.  His argument is based in his own experience as a woodworker and press operator.  I am with him thus far.  I’ve known and worked with my fair share of machinists and millwrights and have repeatedly marveled at their precision and nuanced understanding (dare I say Zen like?) of the subtle feedback they receive from the machine.  That being said, I’m not convinced that Pye’s essential project–attempting to differentiate between hand work and machine or automated work–isn’t important.  I just think he has philosophically missed the mark in failing to 1. recognize the skill and input that automated processes require, and 2. differentiating between skill types.

I won’t claim to have a position worked out on this issue, but I can speculate what it may look like.  I think there is a difference between interacting with the raw material in shaping the final project and interacting with a machine that interacts with the material. Here I will lean on Mathew Crawford’s take on the stochastic arts which, i think, better captures the skill of the production line operator:

“Because the stochastic arts diagnose and fix things that are variable, complex, and not of our own making, and therefore not fully knowable, they require a certain disposition toward the thing you are trying to fix. This disposition is at once cognitive and moral. Getting it right demands that you be attentive in the way of a conversation rather than assertive in the way of a demonstration. I believe the mechanical arts have a special significance for our time because they cultivate not creativity, but the less glamorous virtue of attentiveness. Things need fixing and tending no less than creating”

More importantly, those who engage in the processes that Pye calls “workmanship of certainty” are no less engaged with means and ends than the craftsman that works with hand tools.  I think of Borgmann’s device paradigm. Though Mr. Schwarz does not make direct reference to Borgmann, he nevertheless demonstrates that the incursion of technology into production processes does not necessary result in the divorce of means and ends that are often the concern of philosophers of technology.

The Work of Workmanship

There is, it seems, an historical inevitability to this conversation.  Most if us who work with our hands are not professional woodworkers or furniture or cabinet makers.  We are hobbyists (or perhaps better put, enthusiasts).  Here is the interesting historical piece: the birth and popularity of the home workshop arose in no small part as a critique of modernity and modern technology.  The popularity of handcraft as an antidote to the dehumanization of scientific management and the cleaving of ends and means that was engendered by the birth of the modern assembly line (this legacy is touched on by Matthew Crawford in his excellent Shop Class as Soulcraft).  Indeed, the growth of home handcraft found its genesis in the antimodernist movements of the late 19th and early 20th century (For a more in depth perspective on this I recommend the compelling No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture by T.J. Jackson Lears).  So, we should hardly find it surprising then that over a century later we are still debating the moral and philosophical significance of the machine.

Years ago, I was a member of the rec.woodworking newsgroup.  There was the divide between the Normites (name derived from Norm Abram and his machine heavy approach to woodworking) and the Neanderthals (traditional hand tool folks). Most of the ribbing was good natured.  The reality was this: 1. most of us were a mix of both rather than a pure expression of the species, and 2. it would have been arrogant and ultimately futile to make a claim about which of us derived more joy from the work we did in our basements and garage workshops into the late evening hours after our regular daily labors were done.

Mr. Schwarz is right that the language we use in discussing the distinctions between hand tools and machines can be–even if unintentionally so–disparaging to those who find joy and fulfillment in using a piece of machinery.  I have been guilty of this myself, and if I’m honest, I must admit that I find both joy and amazement at the precision and efficiency of a piece of modern equipment.  There is also a deeper issue here, which is that our American culture disparages (both implicitly and explicitly) people that work with their hands, and I for one do not want to contribute to that. I also think about the amount of time my father and I have spent bonding over episodes of the New Yankee Workshop or marveling at some new machine her purchased–that, my friends, is a whole world of making and engagement that I would never want to minimize or marginalize.

I predominately use hand tools because it is what I have room for in my small shop and I enjoy the historical connection.  Consequently, it is also what I write about, and I will continue to explore the differences between making with hand tools and making with machinery.  I really believe there is an important philosophical distinction to be made without privileging one over the other. I will also heed Mr. Schwarz warning and try to be thoughtful about the manner in which I extol the virtues of a hand cut dovetail or my love for my Stanley #8 joiner. The important part is to build.