by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin


The Future of Woodworking — Part 1

Torsion Box Bench Hook

Sound Safety Tips — Noise Abatement

Major Milling — Step 1 to New Office Furniture

Reader Feedback


The Future of Woodworking — Part 1

Mark and Melanie are comfortably cuddled in their media nest, surrounded by a 360 degree 3D interactive screen, shopping for new dining room furniture.

They selected accessories first, settling on a circa 1840 reproduction still life of fruit in a genuine authentic reproduction wood-like frame and a pair of sconces with faux action candles. They narrowed their search using verbal commands, then sorted through the computer-suggested options with the slightest of finger-flicks. With each flick, a new option inserted itself upon their room images, so they could see how each would look. When they decided on the perfect art and sconces, a touch command finalized their selection and the computer then compared prices from various download sources. Using their recently conjoined government bank credits, they made their purchase, and the plans automatically downloaded to their HPZ3000X fabricator in the next room. The three dimensional fabricator is busily building, layer by layer, the purchased items now, and the countdown clock in the southwest quadrant of the screen shows that the sconces will be ready in less than twelve minutes.

It is now time for Mark and Melanie to pick furniture. Using verbal commands, they narrow the search parameters – "dining table," then "for four people," then "faux wood," since they both like the "retro" look. Images appear immediately. With finger and hand gestures made in the air, Mark and Melanie "whisk" away the ones they do not like and move the "possibles" to another quadrant of the display. The computer responds immediately, helping to narrow selections based on previous likes and dislikes. Soon they have narrowed their search to a handful of candidates, but none seems perfect.

Melanie says, "If only that one on the left had a little thicker legs…" and Mark says, "Yeah, that would be great…and maybe a little darker finish." They select the item, and begin the modification routines. "Computer, make legs thicker." "Computer, make finish darker."

Soon, the table image is perfect, matching chairs have been selected, and they catalog and save a matching buffet for purchase later, when more govbank credits are available. With the touch of a finger the items are ordered, and a fabrication order is sent to a much larger fabrication machine at a local fulfillment center down the street. Mark will be able to pick up the furniture tomorrow.

Far-fetched? 3D fabrication "printers" are already in use, and the technology, like all technology, becomes better and more affordable with each passing day. With something resembling inkjet nozzles, layer upon layer of a three-dimensional object can be "printed" using plastic, cellulose, or cement. Future material choices will expand, perhaps even to include that future quaint and quirky retro-material, plastic ("Oh, that's so twentieth century!").

How far are we from widespread commercial "fabrication on demand?" Fifteen years, tops. Initial commercialization of the technology will be small scale and expensive, but like all technology power, speed, and availability will increase exponentially and costs will come down. Early-adopters will pave the way, their purchases fueling more R&D and volume. It is only a matter of time.

Furniture designers of the future will work with far different tools than we do today. Pen and ink have already been replaced by 3D modeling programs and saws and planes have been replaced with laser cutters and 3D fabrication units in large commercial operations. A furniture designer in 2025 may live a long and productive life having never touched a real piece of wood, a saw, or a plane. It is the inexorable and undeniable march of progress.

What will become of woodworking, woodworkers, and our hobby then? What will become of those craftspeople that inspire and the neophytes who perspire and the vast middle ground of down to earth woodworkers who enjoy this craft? It is the future that interests me most, and should interest you, too.

Of course we can be amused (or bemused) by the quaint (or quirky) costume-wearing re-enactors who wield their giant handsaw and chisel and wow crowds with their demonstrations of board-sawing and mortise-making, and we can appreciate their efforts to keep tradition, if not fully alive, at least alive in our collective psyches. But will their efforts fuel, or even sustain, the future?

The price of power tools and hand tools, and therefore the price of entry, into our hobby, will necessarily increase. Once I laughed at the tongue-in-cheek drawing someone sent me of the "OSHA-approved Cowboy." His horse had air bags, roll bars, warning lights, a back-up beeper, and a funny-looking contraption at the back end that, uhh, mitigated the horse's environmental impact. The cowboy had a hat that doubled as a protective helmet, complete with face guard and hearing protection and his rope was covered with foam padding, lest his calf roping cause the young cows any discomfort. I am not laughing lately. Like the cowboy, our power tools will soon require significant additional redesigns in order to provide protection from ourselves.

Hand tools will not be exempt. There is a cost to warning labels and blade protectors, and an even greater cost attributable to liability insurance. If you accidentally place your finger under a mortise chisel before hitting said chisel with a mallet, you could not possibly be at fault; it simply must be the responsibility of that irresponsible manufacturer that did not provide adequate warning, training, precautionary messaging, and safety devices.

Cost of entry to this hobby will intersect with an even more troubling trend, that of a collective disinterest among the youth of today for learning crafts. "Twittering" is not a craft. In 2007 (the most recent data I could find) the Boy Scouts nationally awarded 82,274 merit badges for "First Aid," 72,279 for "Environmental Science," and 13,702 for a merit badge called "Computers." That same year, 4,621 "Woodwork" merit badges were earned. What are we doing? Woodworking was less popular as a merit badge than Plumbing, Public Speaking, and Pottery. In fact, woodworking only barely beat out Nuclear Science and Dentistry (there is a dentistry merit badge? I wonder who gets to be the practice patient?)!

Everyone is aware of the demise of shop class in schools. Apprentice programs are passé, and in large production shops, machinery has all but replaced individual craftsmanship. Programs such as "Kids Workshop," sponsored by The Home Depot and held monthly at their stores, while laudable, is often poorly attended. Intersecting forces will again affect our future. In a truly self-fulfilling prophecy, decline in hobby participation will drive down tool sales volume, once again causing prices to increase, making the hobby even more pricey for the "newbie" to enter.

Next month, in part 2, we will look at some ideas to reinvigorate our hobby, bring in fresh new blood, and mitigate the growing "cost of entry." I welcome your feedback, ideas, and any success stories, too. We will try to publish anything and everything we find that is helping to sustain our craft and position it for growth, in the hopes that others can emulate your efforts.


Torsion Box Bench Hook

High on the list of must-have, super-simple, easy-to-use workbench accessories, along with a shooting board, is the venerable bench hook. Essentially just a work-holding device, the bench hook can be used as a sawing guide for straight and angled cuts and can be used as a planing stop for small parts. The simplest, built in five minutes or so, will consist of a base, a fence, and a "hook" on the underside.

In use, the bench hook is placed on the bench with the fence in front of you, and the hook on the underside against the workbench. The work piece is held against the fence, and as you can see in the photo, the weight and pressure of holding the work piece holds the bench hook stable against the bench.

This bench hook, perhaps my twentieth, might last a few weeks or months, and I will slap together another in five or ten minutes when this one is worn beyond functionality. But, based on the success of my recent shooting board design (see "Building a Shooting Board" and video), I reasoned it might be possible to improve on the basic bench hook.

In addition to its basic functionality, there were some corollary benefits to the shooting board design that have proven to be quite useful. The quasi-torsion box construction is rigid, heavy, its surface is dead flat, and the design gives the shooting board extra height above the workbench. The French cleat underneath allows the board to be hung on the wall, out of the way, when not in use. And by leaving the French cleat-equipped end of the torsion box open, there is some storage inside the box. Multiple fence options such as the 45-degree miter fixture and so-called donkey ear fixture allow me to save the space of several purpose-built shooting boards. The bench hook should be even easier to build than the shooting board, and using some of the same ideas, should be just as versatile.

As with a shooting board, size is not critical. The fixture should be built to accommodate your bench, your comfort, and your style of working. I wanted my new bench hook to span across my entire bench width so that I could work it from both sides. In order to hang the bench hook out of the way, it also needed to accommodate a hook on one end and a French cleat on the other. If you prefer a shorter bench hook, the French cleat could serve double-duty as the hook.

Building is easy. Start by cutting equal size top and bottom pieces from plywood, MDF, or any straight stable material you have on hand. I used ¾" ply. Then rip spacers to equal width. You will need at least two the length of the top and bottom pieces and several short lengths to span the width.







With the bottom piece on a flat surface, glue the two long pieces into place, and after they are set, cut crosspieces to fit between and glue them down. While this is drying, rummage through your scrap bin and find some suitable pieces of hardwood for a fence.


When sawing on a bench hook, the saw will inevitably cut into the base, knick and mar the fence, and over time, render the bench hook inaccurate at best, or at worst, unusable. To make the torsion box bench hook last longer, sacrificial replaceable fences with broad bases are the answer. As you complete a saw cut, the saw will cut into the extra wide fence base, not the torsion box bench hook itself. Make the wide fence bases from ¼" plywood or hardwood. I used hardwood drawer bottom stock leftover from a previous project. Cut the length of the fence base to match the width of the torsion box.


My fences are Ash, but could be made of anything that is milled straight and true. Make the fences shorter than the overall width of the bench hook and the fence base by an inch or so. If you plan on using the bench hook from both sides of the bench as I do, make the fences a couple of inches shorter and center the fence on the fence base. Glue the fence to the fence base, making sure to keep the pieces square. I made a square fence, a fence with 45-degree ends, and cut a couple of additional pieces of the ¼" stock the same size as the fence bases to be used as planing stops.


By this time, the bench hook base and spacer strips should be dry. Before gluing the top on the torsion box, mark out three hole locations where the fences will be mounted. Clamp one of the fences into its intended location and drill quarter-inch holes from the under side through the plywood and into the fence. My plywood torsion box top was too big to wrestle to the drill press, but I wanted really straight and true holes, so I used a drill guide and a hand held drill. If you are really good with a drill, go for it "free hand." After the box top and first fence is drilled, use the hole locations in the torsion box top to mark the hole locations for the other fence(s) and the quarter inch planing stop stock. Use a quarter-inch brad point bit through the plywood top to mark the locations of the additional fence holes. Drill holes in these pieces as well. Make as many fences as you want at this time – you will use them all sooner or later.


Glue ¼" dowels into each of the holes in the fences. These dowels will provide a friction (dry) fit into the torsion box top and will allow you to easily remove and replace the fences. At this point glue the torsion box top onto the assembly and add the French cleat and/or the bench hook on the bottom side of the torsion box, and your new bench hook is complete.

In the video (Building a Bench Hook) more construction details are shown and the use of the bench hook is demonstrated. You will also see how I built a couple of additional torsion boxes and how I plan to use them.


Sound Safety Tips — Noise Abatement

Out of curiosity, I often wonder what the three most valuable non-tool shop accessories might be for the average woodworker. Hands down, my first vote goes to my beloved cup warmer. Coffee often gets forgotten when I "zone out" or "zone in" to a task, but I can return to that cup, still warm, even after fifteen minutes or more. I love that cup warmer, as only a real coffee-lover can. My second favorite non-tool shop accessory is my iPod dock/speaker combination that allows me to listen to music without the encumbrance of headphones.

My iPod dock is about two years old. I distinctly remember that the LED volume readout on the dock was always at "11" when listening comfortably to background music. Lately, I have noticed that my more comfortable listening level is "13." Doubting that the iPod or dock has somehow lost power, my conclusion has been that a slight diminishment in hearing has occurred. Yikes!

Certainly age affects hearing. Experts agree that continued exposure to overly loud sounds also negatively impacts hearing. My misspent youth probably did my ears no favors, having played (poorly) in a rock band (drums, no less!) and having attended innumerable concerts. As I got older and my tastes broadened, I became a devotee of the symphony, but that did not necessarily help my hearing. In a boisterous movement, a 75-piece orchestra can produce sound in the 130 decibel (dB) range. The average for a rock concert is about 115 - 120 dB.

So, with a long background of live music performances, a hobby with noisy "instruments," and relentless aging, I am a prime candidate for hearing loss. In the down-to-earth woodworking shop, sound (noise) is becoming an increasing safety concern (and should have been a concern all along).


The Science of Sound — A Brief (and simple) Primer  


The loudness (power) of a sound is measured in decibels (dB). The dB scale is logarithmic, not linear. We humans perceive loudness as doubling every 10 dB of sound increase. For example, a 70 dB sound is perceived as twice as loud as a 60 dB sound. Higher frequency sounds are perceived as louder than lower frequency sounds, given the same sound pressure or energy. A bass drum beat at 80 dB will not be perceived to be as loud as a middle C note from a saxophone at the same 80 dB.

Another interesting note is that lower frequency sounds travel further than high frequency sounds and have a low material absorption rate – low frequency sound can literally travel through walls and its intensity decreases less over distance than does a similarly loud high frequency sound. This explains why you can hear the bass beat from the kid's car coming toward you before you hear the rest of the music, if you hear the rest at all. Higher frequency sounds are more readily absorbed, and thus do not travel as far, or through material, as easily.

It is said that we humans hear between 20 hertz (hz) and 20 kilohertz (khz) frequencies, but age and a host of other factors can affect that hearing range, particularly in the higher frequencies, with many of us not hearing well above 14 to 18 khz. Despite the 20 hz to 20 khz range being the generally accepted hearing "range" for humans, we actually are capable of hearing lower frequencies (down to 1 hz in some tests) but the sound pressure needs to be so high (in dB) that we rarely consciously experience sounds below 20 hz.

Sound can also have physiological effects. Giant pipe organs that routinely produce sound in the so-called subsonic range (less than 20 hz) cause a range of physiological responses from euphoria to depression, and have been known to create hallucinations. At 7 hz, roughly the same frequency at which our brain waves emanate, given sufficient pressure, sound can cause our major internal organs to cease functioning. We know from history that both sides of the conflict experimented with sound weapons during World War II and that the U.S., Russia, and other countries continue to research the possible use of sound as weaponry.

Without delving too deeply into the science, in the woodworking shop we need to be concerned with just a few facts and reference points in order to protect our hearing and mitigate noise: (1) Exposure to high sound pressure levels can damage our hearing, and exposure risk is time-based, meaning that longer exposures can have a cumulative impact. (2) Higher frequency sounds are perceived as "louder" than lower frequency sounds of the same sound pressure. (3) Distance affects sound levels differently – higher frequency sounds will diminish in perceived loudness more quickly than will lower frequency sounds. (4) Higher frequency sounds are generally perceived as more annoying but are more easily absorbed or directed.

There are readers undoubtedly thinking right now, "Just throw on a pair of ear protectors and get on with it!" But, like many other things, the solution to noise pollution is not always so simple.


Dangerous Quiet  


Hearing protection is great, and highly recommended in most cases, but with a caveat. We must remember that we all receive auditory safety cues that will be negated to some extent by the use of hearing protection.

These "auditory cues" are numerous and varied. In my shop, I can tell when a power tool blade needs to be cleaned of pitch and gunk by the sound it makes in the wood. I can also painfully remember the two times I experienced kick back, and vividly remember the distinct change in sound as the wood began to pinch the blade, just before it became airborne. Last year, while taking a walk, I heard the unmistakable sound (at least to us in Northern climes) of car tires sliding on the ice, and turned just in time to see an out-of-control car sliding toward me. I jumped and made it to safety, thanks to being able to hear the car behind me. There are safety trade-offs, but when there is traffic, I will still risk frostbitten ears rather than diminish my hearing with earmuffs.


Dangerous Noise  


If you use those hearing protectors that look like headphones but that include built-in speakers, be especially careful. I adjusted my headphones to a comfortable (not too loud, not too soft) level. Carrie Underwood was singing her hit "Last Name" (yes, my musical tastes are eclectic). I placed the headphones over my sound pressure meter and was astonished to see readings from 82 dB to 88 dB in the chorus. Trading one damaging noise for a more pleasing, but still damaging, sound is not a very good trade-off. In fact, public health officials are expressing growing concerns over the long-term effects and the proliferation of ear buds and headphones. Keep the volume low if you use these units.

Here are some interesting approximate decibel (dB) reference points:

NIOSH (the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) gives us guidelines for noise exposure:

In the down-to-earth shop, my shop vacuum puts out 81 dB and my dust collector emits 77 dB (both measured at 6 feet and "ear" level), but the dust collector seems much less obnoxious, since its sound frequency is lower than the screeching, higher-pitched shop vacuum. My table saw puts out a relatively "noisy" 92 dB with the dust collector running, but the combined noise level jumps to 96 dB when cutting a piece of ¾ inch plywood. You can see by the chart that NIOSH recommends no more than about 30 minutes exposure at this level.

My jointer idles peacefully at 80 dB until a piece of wood starts across the knives, then the noise level jumps to 90 dB when jointing a ¾ inch edge and 102 dB when jointing the face of a 3 ½ inch board. Without hearing protection, I should not use my jointer for more than about 8 minutes, according to the NIOSH data.

The noisiest machine in the shop is the thickness planer, registering 95 dB while idling and 103 dB planing a six-inch wide board. It gets louder with wider stock.

Just to remind myself of my previous poor work habits, I cranked up the music to be able to hear it above this din (as I often did in the past) and the cumulative ambient noise level reached an astonishing 105 db. By the time Carrie got through singing "Last Name," I doubt if I could still remember my own.

As safety goes, exclusive of noise, the thickness planer is a relatively more "safe" machine than the table saw, and there are not the same necessary auditory safety cues, so I do routinely wear hearing protection when power planing. Shame on me, but I have not routinely worn hearing protection at the jointer or the saw, but my research has opened my eyes, and ears. There are other additional noise abatement steps that I have taken, too.


Down to Earth Workshop Noise Abatement  


Remember that sound intensity lessens with distance and higher frequency sounds are more readily absorbed and thereby mitigated. I would love to locate my dust collector in a separate soundproof room, but space does not currently permit that. I am, however, building a lightweight self-standing screen to place around the collector. This will help muffle the sound and redirect it upward.

I use my shop vacuum as a dust collector for some tools and for general shop cleanup. I am considering replacing the screaming banshee with a Festool unit based solely and exclusively upon the stated dB ratings, although I am sure all of the other purported benefits of this unit will be welcome, as well.

When using any power tool, I now turn off the music. I could not really hear it over most machines anyway, no matter how much I cranked up the volume, and frankly, less distraction when using a power tool is probably a good thing.

Hearing protection is not an "all or nothing" proposition, and I have found that disposable foam earplugs will lessen sound intensity while not entirely eliminating the audible cues I get from the machine/wood interface sound. For example, I can wear the super quiet headphone-style ear protectors at the planer and foam earplugs at the table saw.

Just like our first defense against dust is at the source, the first defense against noise is a well-tuned machine. A smooth-running tool with a sharp blade will always make less noise than a sloppily maintained machine with a dull blade.

Consider shop environment, too. "Soft" surfaces reflect less sound. Think of wood flooring rather than tile or concrete, walls of sheet rock instead of hardboard, and if you got rid of those dusty curtains on the window, maybe reconsider. You can always wash them!

Last, but certainly not least, I now carefully consider the use of any power tool before flipping the switch. With all due respect to the knickers and puffy shirt-wearing "golden age of woodworking" throwback crowd, if I have 300 board feet of rough-cut lumber to mill, I will turn on the power tools, thank you very much. But, by the same token, if I have one quick cut to make, firing up the table saw and dust collector seems overkill, since I can make the cut more quickly with a hand saw and a bench hook. And I can still hear the music! A smoothing plane and a scraper will often leave a better surface than a random orbit sander. These tools whisper instead of scream. With a single board to plane, I will invariably reach for a jack, smoother, or jointer. Remember, sound exposure is cumulative, so those quiet moments with a hand plane or scraper help make up for the hours we have all spent with sanders, planers, and jointers.

There is still much more that can be done. Acoustic engineers could probably tell us how to arrange our shops and acoustically "tune" them to lessen sound reflections. Tool reviewers should routinely include sound level measurements in the comparative specifications of all power tools so we can make informed buying decisions. Manufacturers should consider noise to be one of the safety concerns they address in the design and engineering process. Harley Davidson and Porsche submit their vehicles to anechoic sound chambers and fine-tune through engineering to achieve their distinctive tailpipe sound. Toolmakers should "design in" the less offensive lower frequency sounds and "engineer out" the more offensive higher frequency sounds. "Tunable" hearing protection is another option. With today's technology, it is now possible to filter out the loudest and most offensive of sounds and still permit us to hear important safety auditory cues, voices, etc.

Let me know your strategies for noise reduction and any tricks you have employed. Also let me know if you find any equipment significantly less noise-offensive than any other. Write to your favorite reviewers and ask them to routinely take sound level measurements of the equipment they review. Together we can all look forward to hearing the sweet sounds of music long into our old age.


Additional Reading, Resources & Interesting Stuff  


If you want to experiment with the noise levels in your shop, sound level meters can be purchased at Radio Shack or Amazon.com for under $40 to well into the $100s. If you have an iPhone, you can download an App from the iTunes App Store that will convert your iPhone into a serviceable sound meter for a few dollars.

If you would like to read more about sound and its military application (or rumors thereof) here are two good places to start:
http://crab.wordpress.com/2008/01/14/a-short-history-of-sound-weapons-pt2-infrasound/ http://www.artesonoro.org/sonicweapons/2008/03/21/acoustic-trauma-bioeffects-of-sound-by-alex-davies /

For a wealth of workplace safety information, visit NIOSH at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/


Major Milling — New Office Furniture

If you are a repeat reader of this column, you probably know that I never sell furniture, and almost never keep a piece that I build. Everything is given away as gifts or charity. Building something for myself will be a bit of an adventure, since I will either become overly obsessed ("I'm going to have this forever, so it has to be perfect") or careless ("It's just a desk, and it will be covered with papers most of the time").

My office furniture project should also present some new challenges as I have vowed to eschew the use of my table saw throughout the project. Long enamored with a well-tuned band saw, I wondered if a hobbyist could survive, and even thrive, with this safer and more versatile tool as the cornerstone of his/her workshop.

The desk, credenza, and bookcase designs are little more than a few rough sketches and my imagination, as my designs usually go. But I am ready to start building. A sizeable stack of maple and cherry boards has been acclimating to my shop now for several weeks, and I have just started to mill this rough-cut lumber. My first step is to achieve one flat side, which will also allow me to judge and pick grain patterns for different parts.

Next month we will get into this adventure a little deeper, and I promise, there will be plenty of other power tools in use!


Reader Feedback

Last month's article about turning our hobby into a vocation generated a lot of e-mail. Thank you to all for the compliments and for not wanting to skin me alive. There is not room here to provide a sampling of all the various feedback, but Rudy from Mississippi had some extremely poignant remarks. About buying quality tools, he says, "I have found that when my expertise finally exceeds the tool's ability, then I invest in the best replacement." I love that line, "…when my expertise finally exceeds the tool's ability…"

Whether woodworking remains a lifelong hobby or if you decide to make it an income-producing vocation, Rudy's observation, "The need to create lasting beauty is a fundamental human characteristic that drives us and when realized yields great satisfaction" should serve to remind us all of what is at the very core of our hobby. Thanks Rudy!




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 sjohnson13@mac.com.

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