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May 27, 2024

Confessions of an Amateur Woodworker

By Dan H. Woods

I hate to admit it, but my woodworking aspirations out-run my actual skills by a fair amount. My current woodworking strategy is to buy a LOT of wood and to keep cutting enough pieces until, through the miracle of statistics, two pieces actually fit together properly. I'm a trial and error man with an emphasis on the "error".

I suspect that a big part of my problem is that none of my machines are square and true. It's not that I haven't tried tuning them up. I read the owner's manuals and pore over the how-to guides -- but nothing seems to help. Armed with a machinist's square, a wrench, and a well executed plan, I can take any tool that's slightly out of square and, over the course of several hours, make it much, MUCH worse.

This is a true story: I once had a perfectly good 4" jointer whose knives needed sharpening. I bought a quality sharpening jig and through patience and hard work managed to round over the blades quite nicely. (I preferred to think of it as an infinitely variable cutting angle.) With the sharpening -- or to be truthful, the dulling -- out of the way, it was time to replace the blades.

First I tried the ruler-on-the-outfeed-table trick to set the blade height, but that didn't work too well for me. Then I built a fixture using plate glass and some rare earth magnets. This worked great at holding the blades in absolute PERFECT alignment -- at least right up to the point when I needed to tightened the jib screws. Then the blades would shift and skew slightly no matter how gently I tried to sneak up on "tight".

I spent HOURS trying to set those blades. When I was done, I could take a perfectly square piece of wood and through precise, repeated cuts on my jointer, turn it into a rhomboid. This was unacceptable -- even to me. So I did what any other woodworker worth his carbide tipped dado blade set would do: I bought new jointer with blades set at the factory.

Good woodworkers -- the guys that actually make a living by crafting things out of wood -- manage without using fancy jigs. They sight down the wood, grab a random tool off their workbench, and make perfect, straight cuts with a few deft moves. These guys could cut flawless dovetails with a sharpened screwdriver. For example, the trim carpenter that helped build my house used, as far as I could tell, a portable table saw that looked as sophisticated and as sturdy as an Easy-Bake Oven. Yet HIS miter joints actually fit together -- a feat I've never been able to accomplish despite a fancy miter box, precision layout tools, and/or frantic sanding.

My utter lack of skills doesn't stop me from trying though. I love woodworking and I've actually made a couple of nice pieces of distressed furniture. Not on purpose, you understand. It just that anything I make comes out looking old and slightly falling apart straight from my workshop. Most people strive for a distressed look that imitates many years of loving use: scuffed legs, worn corners, and dinged tops. My distressed look tends to imitate the wear that you would get if you lovingly dropped a piece of furniture off the back of a pickup truck onto a dirt road.

But I think that I'm getting better. I've talked to other woodworkers and they suggest that I pick a tool and get proficient with it. The hand tool advocates suggest either the block plane or a bench plane -- two good all-purpose tools. The power tool aficionados assure me that learning to use my table saw will serve me well. Those both seem like good ideas and someday I may follow their advice. In the meantime I'm going to concentrate getting better with the one woodworking tool that's never let me down: gap filling glue.

Originally appeared 2009-07-06

Article © Dan H. Woods. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-08-10
Image(s) are public domain.
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