One of my projects this summer has been to turn part of my basement into a wood-working shop. The tools have mostly come from flea markets and tag sales, though not all. I’ve generally avoided power tools — I want neither the mess nor the risk of handling them; and besides I want to get very good at handling hand tools.   The essential difficulty remains the same: many schools are going to establish either liability rules or ‘best practices’/ affirmative guidelines for students in workshops or MakerSpaces, which preclude the use of serious power tools.  And that means learning to work well with hand tools in a variety of materials — either in wood or in metal or in plastic.



One of the things I learned during this investigation was that the modern saw horse is a tool invented for power tools. If one doesn’t need to engage core muscles to saw a board, as with a modern circular saw, then a sawhorse at waist height is the right tool. However, I kept finding that cutting wood at waist height on my work bench or saw horses was not ideal. The clamping was weird and the angle for my arm was wrong. Enter Chris Schwarz, who tells me that I should be sung a saw bench. So I built one.


It’s funny how many things one can learn from building a tool/piece-of-furniture like this: how to saw straight right angles.  How to cut at an angle other than 90°.  How to plane (or chisel) a smooth flat surface.  How to rasp and sand a surface to relative smoothness.

One learns most of these things by doing them badly, of course.  It seems to be normal that one discovers that there’s a better way of doing these things, after one does them wrong the first time.  So one resolves to get it right on the next project.


Easier said than done, of course.

One of the things that was startling to me is how many pieces of equipment — what woodworkers typically call “appliances” — I had to make in order to make a saw bench.  For example, I wound up making a few bench dogs out of some wooden doweling and some scrap blocks of wood, so I can plane the Douglas Fir to the right dimensions and not have the wood stock leap about like a stuck pig.

Some of my readers are wondering what bench dogs are — and here, they’re essentially a round dowel that can fit into a round hole (here, 3/4″ in diameter), with a square-ish wooden block mounted on top using a combination of a hole drilled with a Forstner bit and a some wood glue. Once I made these bench dogs, I was able to hold the wood stock relatively level and straight, so that it could be planed flat.  I also began (but didn’t quite finish) a bench hook, and a shooting board.  I didn’t finish these projects because both of them are dependent on having a woodworking plane or two that I don’t currently have, but could use effectively if I find them.


wood rack

It’s funny how much of my woodworking practice seems to be a case of working to build something beautiful and useful — and winding up building something useful but not particularly beautiful so that maybe sometime down the line I can build something beautiful.  High quality woodworking with hand tools seems to involve the use of a lot of appliances, a lot of jigs and templates and measuring tools… a great many of which can and should be built by the woodworker so that they use these kinds of precision projects to learn how to do the higher-quality work needed later on.

As an example, I wound up having to build this wood rack to store the wood I was using.  Wood has to be racked, for up to two weeks, so that the moisture content of the wood can acclimate to the shop-space in which it’s going to be cut up and shaped and used.  If I hadn’t known this, I’d probably have just taken the wood, cut it up, and then built the saw bench.  But no… let the wood adjust to the environment first, or it will warp and bend in unexpected ways, after it’s made into furniture.  And then your work is ruined. Or not.


Finished Bench

The finished bench turned out OK.  There are a lot of things I need to do differently when I make another one of these (when you have two, you can clamp boards to both, and have an additional table or bench surface, or stabilize work while you’re cutting or drilling or planing it).  Here’s a short list:

  1. cut angles to 10° ± 1° rather than to “what looks right” so that the legs attach correctly to the top.
  2. Smooth down the interior crotch or V of the top more effectively.
  3. Drill better pilot holes for the nails.
  4. Re-read the article on using cut nails for construction.
  5. Measure more carefully for the short and long braces joining leg to leg, and leg-set to leg-set, so as to ensure a tighter fit.
  6. Work with a longer/heavier plane during the smoothing process, so as to get surfaces that are smooth, flat and square to one another more quickly.
  7. Work more carefully with wood-glue to ensure more tightly-fitted joints on legs and braces.

The thing about all seven of these goals or rules or guidelines, of course, is that they’re not easily achieved.  One makes minimal progress on all of them through daily effort — but it’s much better to put in some small amount of daily effort than it is to put in a large amount of effort once a week.  “Cut a dovetail every day,” says Chris Schwarz, and he’s right — that is how your dovetails go from looking terrible to looking like masterwork.

And so, slowly, the wood workshop takes shape: first the wooden worktables, and then the tables support the pieces while I build the saw bench. To build the saw bench requires bench dogs, and a shooting board, and so these things get built (sorta).  To build these things requires acclimated wood, so a wood rack gets built.  Building a wood rack and waiting is boring, so lucets get cut out, carved, and sanded.  Oh, yeah, and some knitting needles.  A bunch of things get churned out in the process of setting out to make one thing — the one thing needs a lot of other adaptations and variations to come into being, to finish one project. And so they all come into being together.

It’s a lot like magic.