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A Pair of Very Pleasant Diversions

by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

This month:

A Pair of Very Pleasant Diversions

The Future of Woodworking — Part 2

Less Pleasant Diversions

Is Your Workshop Prepared for Disaster?

Very Pleasant Diversions

What do you get when winter is approaching and you mix one softhearted woodworker with a stray cat and her litter of kittens? The answer is a couple of days spent building, what became known around the down-to-earth woodworking shop as, "Catty Shack."

With room for Mom and kittens, "Catty Shack" will hopefully provide protection from the elements. The "shack" now rests on the front porch so that it soaks up the warming morning sun and so that its openings strategically face my windows. I like to watch the kittens play!

While I had plywood out and my router set for perfect-fitting dados, I decided to build a project that has been on the back burner for a while.

Like everyone I suppose, space in the down-to-earth shop is precious. A little additional storage without using any additional floor space was the motivation behind this four-drawer storage unit that sits on top of my drill press base. A short video showing some of the design considerations is now available on the Highland Woodworking YouTube site.

The Future of Woodworking – Part 2

Last month we started a dialog about the future of our hobby, describing an intersection between waning interest for woodworking among young people, an increasing cost of entry to the hobby, and new design and manufacturing technologies that will change the way people acquire furniture in the near future.

There is another critical factor to consider. We woodworkers need tools and supplies, and we depend on manufacturers and retailers to provide them. These businesses require profit to survive.

No matter how much enjoyment we hobbyists derive from working with wood, at its core, this is a business. So, we will start where all businesses must start — with customers.

Power to the People

An old saying in business is "Nothing happens until somebody buys something." We hobbyists are the core, the basis, the raisons d'etre for manufacturers, retailers, publishers, and others that make a living from providing us with tools, supplies, information, and more. If we aren't buying, they aren't selling.

We dictate brand preferences, quality choices, price points, and selection and we mandate the editorial content of publications and even the availability of classes. We control the market. How? We vote with our dollars. We have all the power. Yet, we depend on our manufacturers to crank out the tools and supplies we need and on magazines to provide motivation and knowledge. It is a symbiotic relationship for which we all share responsibility.

Manufacturers sometimes act as if they control the market. "Build a better mousetrap," and all that... But the fact is, consumers are in control, and those manufacturers who listen best, fare best. When was the last time a manufacturer, retailer, or publisher really asked you what you want? When was the last time you told them what you want? Instead, manufacturers are mostly forced to divine our interests based on our habits.

In a free market, considerable capital is often wasted on the development of products that customers ultimately do not want (or do not want in sufficient quantities to offset the cost of development). If a new product does not sell, the development costs are added to other products that do sell. In essence, we all wind up paying for the development costs of products that did not sell well.

A company that builds enough products that do not sell will fail. While I am an unabashed capitalist and laissez faire evangelist, I also believe that to preserve our hobby it may be acceptable to transcend normal market forces. Bending convention to our benefit may help preserve our hobby.

We should share in the responsibility for success of our hobby by giving manufacturers guidance. Vote with our dollars, sure, but we should give our suppliers some "general direction" so that precious research and development dollars are not wasted on products that will not sell.

Research, user feedback, shared ideas — these are symbiotic responsibilities in order to perpetuate our hobby. Yes, we have the power of the consumer, but we also have responsibility. Get involved! Manufacturers will thrive on our feedback.

Retail — The Vital Communications Link

Whether it is on-line, brick and mortar, or a combination, the retail channel of distribution is a critical communication link between end users and manufacturers. If we vote with our dollars, the woodworking store is our polling place.

The retailer is where we experience new products, obtain our critical supplies, build our collective knowledge, or just kibitz with like-minded enthusiasts. It is the place where our shopping habits provide feedback. To sustain and grow our hobby, we have to support this vital connection. Likewise, we need our retailers to listen, to communicate, and to help provide vital market research to manufacturers.

Highland Woodworking provides a Blog for feedback and interaction, classes for learning opportunities, a Twitter account for news, a collection of videos, a newsletter, and more, as do some other retailers. Are we all participating? Are we "blogging" and "twittering" and providing all the feedback we can? The success and perpetuation of our hobby depends on communications through our collective channel of distribution.

Shaping the Future

In the giant stew pot of forces that portend our future, cost of entry, new blood, and changing tastes in furniture will have an impact, as will manufacturers, retailers, and we, the consumers of woodworking tools, supplies, and information. We can shape the future, expand the reach of our hobby, and insure its success far into the future.

Mass Customization

The term "mass customization" may be new to you, but it is a concept to which business has inexorably gravitated since Henry Ford gave birth to the assembly line. While a succinct definition of the term is somewhat elusive, it is, at its core, the ability to quickly and inexpensively produce a product customized to an individual's needs and desires at a cost similar to a mass produced one-size-fits-all product.

Ironically, ever since the first product rolled off the first assembly line, industry has tried to recapture the allure of variety, option, personalization, craftsmanship, and customization.

Henry famously said, "You can have any color you want, as long as it is black." But the second guy that bought a car immediately painted it a different color, changed the mud flaps, slapped on a bumper sticker, and hung a foxtail on the aerial. Well, I'm not sure about all that, but I am sure that people want things personalized and individualized. Have you ever wasted an hour or more finding that "just right" ring tone for your phone? Did you install a custom "wallpaper" background on your computer screen? Have you vanity license plates or monogrammed hankies? If so, you are an example of our hunger for individuality.

It has become de rigueur to order a new computer pre-loaded with the software we want and the memory and disk capacity that suits us, all shipped the same day. A monogrammed iPod costs no extra and takes no additional time. In our own hobby, it is now possible to order a workbench made to a specific height, left or right-handed.

Supply chain efficiency and manufacturing sophistication has streamlined customization in the furniture industry. Ordering a sofa with a special fabric or leather color used to be a tortuous and lengthy affair, fraught with uncertainty. Now stores offer quick turnaround and guaranteed satisfaction. Already, finish choices can be made when ordering wood furniture. How long before manufacturers begin to allow (or encourage) customization of style? "Make that leg a little thicker, please" and "I would rather have four small drawers than two large ones" will be easy to accommodate. The price for this personal tailoring will drop. Continued advancements in manufacturing technology and supply chain efficiency guarantee it.

A "bread and butter" mainstay allure of custom furniture makers has been their consultation with clientele and the creative customization of design. With mass manufacturers encroaching on the customization angle at competitive prices, professional woodworkers will face more competition.

Perhaps more importantly, mass customization will affect our hobby's inflow of beginners. Many woodworkers got "hooked" on our hobby by first building something out of need — we wanted something different than was commercially available, or we needed to save money. If a consumer can get exactly the furniture they want through mass customization at a reasonable price, without the work, some will never try to build it themselves and thus will never get to experience the joys of our hobby.

Mass customization will pervade our suppliers, too. As a "southpaw" I will pledge my allegiance and vote unanimously with my dollars for any manufacturer that can offer me a left-handed saw handle or a lefty-optimized power tool.

In the future you might scan your hand and a toolmaker will make a tool handle sized "just right." "I love that table saw, but can I order it with my name monogrammed across the cabinet?" or "I'd like those chisels with Maple handles instead of Beech" may eventually become commonplace conversations in stores and on-line.

Feeding the Future

Love them, hate them, or relish your ambivalence, the fact is, McDonald's has brilliantly conceived and executed what I refer to as "futures marketing." The "play land" and kids' meals sell burgers and fries, sure, but more importantly, they implant upon young impressionable minds a favorable experience. That favorable experience becomes a part of the collective McDonald's "gestalt" that accompanies one to adulthood. How can you dislike the restaurant that gave you such pleasant childhood memories? You want your child to have those same pleasant experiences. McDonald's has brilliantly stoked the populace with a future flow of customers, just like shop class used to instill in students a love of woodworking and pride of accomplishment.

Last month I mentioned the laudable effort that The Home Depot is making with their Kids Workshop series. A recent list of projects on their web site showed a football display holder and a pencil holder. Excellent. I am sure whoever designs these projects is saddled with certain criteria such as "no more than X number of parts, must be able to be nailed together, requires no finish, must be cheap." These kits are free, so we must praise Home Depot for their efforts. What some of these projects lack, however, is day-to-day utilitarianism, peer group reinforcement, and ongoing gratification.

Imagine instead a child-size table, stool, bench, or chair. When your daughter invites her friends over for "tea" and says, "I built this table," there is a secondary gratification from the project, a utilitarianism that continues, and peer admiration that is very powerful with children (just like adults). When your son steps up onto a stool he built to reach for a toy and says to his friends, "I built this stool," the same positive reinforcement occurs. If Home Depot offered a kid-size bench or stool kit for Kid's Workshop at a nominal charge, how many parents would pay? I'll bet quite a few.

Kids still build model cars, planes, and rockets — everything has not gone digital. Have we missed an opportunity to show children the joys of woodworking? Wood building kits for kids is a potential business opportunity.

Useful things can be made into kit form. The possibilities are endless. A consortium of woodworkers could produce parts. Woodworker A could make tabletops, Woodworker B, aprons and stretchers, and Woodworker C could make legs. The local woodworking club could package the kits, print the instructions, and perform the shipping. Kits could be age-appropriate. For the youngest, all cuts would already be made, and mostly the kit would involve assembly. For a slightly older group of kids, a couple of cuts might be required. A drawer might be added to a more advanced kit providing exposure to slightly more intricate assembly. With each more advanced kit additional kid-size tools could be made available for the youngster's "toolkit."

Changing the Cost/Benefit Relationship

Speaking of tools, we are in a perplexing quandary. Low quality tools often yield poor results, are more difficult to work with, and de-value more quickly. Poorly performing tools serve only to discourage new woodworkers. Yet quality tools that enhance the woodworking experience can be prohibitively expensive for someone just dipping their toe into the woodworking hobby. How can we provide fledgling woodworkers with quality tools, but keep the "price of admission" within reach of the average, down-to-earth guy? This is a gnarly problem, and will require a complete "re-imagining."

If I were new to the hobby, my reading would undoubtedly unearth one of the many articles extolling the virtues of a block plane. This simple and extremely utilitarian tool seems like something I should add to my new "kit" of woodworking tools. But, alas, I cannot simply budget for the cost of the plane. I must also consider how I will keep its blade sharp.

Looking at the down-to-earth sharpening bench, I can quickly calculate a thousand dollars spent (invested, wasted) on various do-dads and thingamajigs to help put an edge on a tool. Bench grinder, electric sharpener, granite block, special sandpaper, water stones, alignment jigs, skew jigs, camber jigs, slip stones and more fill the shelves. Even a basic sharpening set-up could cost several hundred dollars. A first-time woodworker might conclude that adding a simple block plane is simply too much of an investment.

But "re-imagining" our hobby could lead to a possible answer. A quick review of replacement plane blades shows the average price to be about $43.00. These blades come sharp enough to use. With additional volume, the price might come down to $35.00 or $30.00, or even less. Faced with a potential investment of hundreds of dollars for sharpening equipment or treating a blade as "disposable," a new woodworker might well opt for a disposable, or better yet, recyclable, blade. What if each blade came with a prepaid mailer back to the factory for "sharpening/reconditioning?" A newly sharpened "reconditioned" blade might be even less expensive.

We need more "re-imagining" in order to accommodate new woodworkers. We old hands often think of a saw handle with assorted blades as a cheap big box store item, but quality and utility need not be mutually exclusive. A nice handle with interchangeable backsaw rip and crosscut blades is possible.

Multi-function tools were once very popular here and are still popular in some parts of the world. Other than some changeover time, there is no technical reason a single motor cannot power multiple operations in a quality machine. Router manufacturers have long provided fixed and plunge bases for the same motor. Why not a single power plant that can drive multiple stationary tools?

The old Sears, Roebuck and Co., built an empire from its "good, better, best" marketing. Which manufacturers will recognize that we need a quality tool at an affordable price in order to lure new woodworkers to the craft? A reader recently commented that he buys a better tool when "his skills exceed the quality of the tool." If the "good" could actually be good, the "good, better, best" methodology could give newbie woodworkers an affordable entry point and an upgrade path forward.

Purists may say that multi-function tools sacrifice accuracy at the expense of utility. They may contend that the ability to put an edge on one's own tools is basic to woodworking, and that changing the blade on a tool handle will take too much time. Fine. But consider what you might do if you were just starting into woodworking, had a limited supply of cash, and wanted to get to work. Where would you cut back? What would you do without? What could you do without? This is how ideas are born. This is how we "re-imagine."

Next month, in the final installment of this series, we will further explore the "re-imagining" of our hobby... some wild ideas that may not be so wild after all!

Some Less Pleasant Diversions

When there is a project you are just "itching" to build, it sometimes seems that events conspire to keep you out of the shop. October seemed to be full of distractions. A friend needed a stair railing repaired, another needed a toilet replaced, some six metric tons of leaves had to be removed from my yard (to make room for more). While building "Catty Shack" and the drill press storage cabinet, I did some mental redesigning of the "itching to get started" office furniture project. The redesign mandated that I purchase some additional 8/4 Cherry, which is now quietly acclimating. By this time next month, construction will be underway! I hope.

Time to Take a Workshop Inventory

Killjoy, buzz-kill, party-pooper? Me? Never! But I am a pragmatist. We all need to occasionally contemplate the unthinkable, if for no other reason to be prepared. "What would happen if my shop burned to the ground, was burglarized, or flooded?"

Put that chilling thought aside and conduct this simple experiment now. Go into your shop, pick one cabinet or drawer, and without opening it, make a list of everything in it. Try to remember everything. Done? Now compare the list to what is actually in the cabinet or drawer. How close did you get? Did you miss anything?

In the event of a catastrophic loss, would you be able to list everything in your shop for insurance purposes? I know I couldn't. I tried the experiment above and missed almost half the stuff in one drawer!

Most homeowner's insurance policies provide for replacement of articles at "actual cash value" (ACV) or "replacement cost." But if you are unable to identify all items and provide substantiation for the value of each, you may not be reimbursed fairly or accurately. Documenting your workshop inventory does not have to be an overwhelming or unsavory task. Here's how to make it easy...

Take a Workshop Inventory

First, if you are not already practicing "5S" to keep your shop neat, clean, organized, and safe, re-read the article 5S Your Workshop. Once your shop is organized and you have shed the tools and supplies you never use, creating an inventory list will be easier.

Rename and label photos.
This one is "North Wall.jpg"

Use a digital camera and take a minimum of four pictures from the center of the space. If you cannot capture the whole shop in four pictures, take more. The idea is to create a virtual 360-degree panorama of the space.

Make the names descriptive.
This one is "West Wall Alcove.jpg"

Before going any further, transfer the pictures to your computer and/or print them (best to do both), and name/label them, for example: North Wall, West Wall, West Wall Alcove, etc. With pictures in hand, go back to the shop and start with one photo/view. Are there cabinets, drawers, or other concealed spaces? Zoom in and take more pictures, capturing details. Open drawers and cabinets and photograph what is inside. "NW Cab 2" would be a good label for the North Wall photo, second cabinet from the left.

Take detail photos of the insides of cabinets.
Name them so they tie to the main pictures,
like "NW Cab 2.jpg"

Continue this process until you have created a complete photo "album" of your shop. Work methodically, transferring a few pictures at a time to your computer, printing as you go. Just remember, if you spread this task over a few days and stop in the meantime to build a cat house or a cabinet, make sure you put everything back where it was when you started — you do not want to duplicate, or worse, miss an important or expensive tool when you resume your inventory.

When all the photographs are done, fill in an inventory form. Your insurance company may provide one (check their web site), you can create your own in Excel, or just download the free form we have provided (click here to download). However you choose to proceed, make sure to include at minimum the information we have provided for on our form.

Be sure to match each item's location to the photographic record (the downloadable form includes additional hints and instructions). If you cannot remember the purchase date of an item, estimate. If you cannot remember where you acquired a tool, find a current seller. If the exact item is no longer available, find as close a match as possible. Fill in the actual or estimated cost to replace. Attach receipts wherever possible.

If you have built anything in your shop (jigs, cabinets, shooting boards, benches, etc.) indicate "self" as the source under "Where Acquired" and enter a number in the box labeled "sub-schedule." Using the sub-schedule form, calculate the cost to replace the item. The form will guide you, but don't forget things like hardware, finish, and especially your own labor when calculating the cost of an item. Be accurate. No insurance company will believe that your three-board bench hook is worth a thousand dollars just because you are such a talented woodworker!

Use the other sub-schedule form provided to list the contents of cabinets, drawers, or other "hidden" areas. Organize your inventory into a file or a binder. Transparent sheet protectors are useful for storing the inventory forms, receipts, and other documentation.

Soon you will have a record that will save you time and money should a catastrophe ever occur. Remember to store a copy of your shop inventory list somewhere off-site (a safe deposit box, a fire-resistant safe, your daughter's house — anywhere besides in the shop!). Keep your inventory up to date. Each new addition to your shop will only take a minute to photograph and add to the inventory list. While you are at it, call your insurance agent and do a little "check-up" on your policy. Make sure you have adequate coverage for your growing tool collection. Now, go build something! Peace of mind is priceless!

Steven Johnson is recently retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life).

Steven can be reached directly via email at

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