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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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2010 In The Down To Earth Workshop

In 1964 I was almost a teenager, and I vividly remember my first exposure to political satire on "That Was The Week That Was" starring David Frost. I wouldn’t say it changed my life, but I certainly can borrow from its premise, and say, "That Was The Year That Was" in the Down To Earth Workshop as I ruminate on what was accomplished, what wasn’t, and what I hope to accomplish next year.

The "big box" hardware store chains love the frequent customers they dub "home perfecters." These are the intrepid men and women that are never completely satisfied with their home, and serially remodel, build, add, modify, or otherwise "perfect" their living space. I am, assuredly, a workshop "perfecter." The Down To Earth Shop is not, and will never be, quite perfect, and many an hour is spent thinking how to make the shop more efficient, more comfortable, and more spacious.

Some might deem it obsessive (or worse) but I spent several days replacing my lumber rack with a more efficient model that rendered exactly 10.67 square feet of additional floor space. The unit holds sheet goods, stock up to 8 feet in length, and smaller bits and pieces. The space gain was critical, but the new lumber rack is also better organized, easier to access, and way more stable than the previous "A-frame" design. I even managed to incorporate a dust catcher for my intrepid radial arm saw and wheels that make the whole thing mobile.

Another tiny bit of space was gained by making new shooting boards and bench hooks that incorporate a French cleat so they can be stored on the wall rather than on the shelf under my bench. In this case, though, the space was a secondary benefit, as these new bench fixtures work better, are more accurate, and will last longer.

I built a cabinet for hand planes, a couple of clamp racks, and most recently, a cabinet attached to the base of my drill press (see article and video ) that added a few cubic feet of storage without using any precious floor space.

With finite space and diminishing creative ways to utilize that space, learning about the 5S process of sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain, was the epiphany that most changed my shop and my work this year. Recently I skimmed over some woodworking blog posts extolling the virtues of jelly jars, coffee cans, old paint cans, discount store plastic containers, and other cheap, free, or simply bizarre storage solutions, and could only think that all these bloggers should try the 5S system in their shop (you can read about how to "5S" your workshop by clicking here ).

In my shop, and maybe in yours, I used to spend a lot of time figuring out ways to store stuff that I actually never used...or used so infrequently that the time spent storing and then retrieving the item far outweighed any small savings I might have realized. My new rule based on the 5S principle is simple. If I use an item every day, it stays out and accessible. If I use it weekly, it gets stored logically and where I can find it. If I use it monthly, it gets stored outside the shop. If I don’t know if, or when, I might use it, it’s gone. Goodbye, and good riddance. My shop is clean, uncluttered (most days) and far more enjoyable.

Still, my shop is not perfect. In the winter it is cold and expensive to heat. And even if I possessed a rich man’s wallet, I do not believe it will ever be a truly comfortable working environment in the winter without major work. The bare concrete floor, the garage door that is little more than an oversize windbreak, and the open-to-the-rafters ceiling contribute to the winter discomfort. Perhaps next summer I will finally insulate the rafters and do something permanent to solve the cold floor problem.

Quite a few projects passed through the Down To Earth shop this year. A chess box made of maple and mahogany with wooden chess pieces was a gift for a friend who wants to learn to play. He better learn, that was a lot of work! I designed and built an "occasional table," so named because you might be hard-pressed to find any other use for it. But it is pretty. A coffee table that was well crafted presented numerous design and build challenges. Unfortunately, it turned out to be rather unwieldy looking and a bit too bizarre in its design to really intrigue anyone. I plan to give it away, but I cannot think of to whom I might foist this "unrealized" concept. I built a cabinet for a relative, a stool from reclaimed old-growth oak for a friend, and a "katty shack" (see the November issue of the Down to Earth Woodworker column ) for a stray cat and her kittens...perhaps my most appreciative gift recipient!

What was I thinking?

I learned some new techniques this year and hopefully gained skills in some others. Angles and curves have always befuddled me, so it seems everything I have built has had curves, angles, or both. I think I am getting better, and the math seems a bit less daunting.

I learned a bit more about how to "justify" tool purchases to my spouse, thanks to a lively stream of feedback from readers. The article that spawned all the great suggestions was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but apparently struck a chord with woodworkers everywhere.

I learned a little about human nature, too. Frequent guests to the Down To Earth shop have given me a lot of insight into fellow woodworkers and non-woodworkers alike. My favorite comment this year was from a non-woodworker who said "After watching you for a while, it seems that woodworking is just a continual process of making large boards into smaller boards." I guess if you don’t see the actual glue-up process, it might look that way. I might have said to him, "Watching you work, it seems that all you do is obsessively fondle your Blackberry and occasionally go to the bathroom." But that would be mean-spirited...

And mean-spirited would certainly never describe the many woodworkers I have met and with whom I have exchanged e-mails throughout the year. There may be other hobbies and pastimes, but I doubt there is a group of people that are more genuine, nicer, and, well, "down to earth" than woodworkers.

Last, I learned that making videos is really tough work. Setting up a shot, shooting "take" after "take," then editing the resultant mess into something reasonably coherent, all while trying to actually construct a real project, is daunting. Looking back, it is obvious why so many people ultimately assemble a collection of "outtakes." What else can you do with all that unused video? And if you can’t laugh at yourself and your own mistakes, take my advice and don’t try to make a video! The experience has taught me to better appreciate the real pros, like Norm.

All in all, a pretty terrific year --- it truly is the journey and not the destination that fuels my energy and passion for this hobby. Of course, this is a great time of year for looking forward, making plans, and resolving to accomplish certain things.

My current office furniture project is moving along, albeit slowly, but it will eventually bear fruit. I am already looking forward to some new project ideas that are just now germinating. I definitely want to improve the winter comfort level in my shop, and I am seriously considering a couple of new/replacement power tools. I will probably add to my ever-growing collection of hand tools, too, since I am finding considerable pleasure in "silent" woodworking. Perhaps most importantly, I have resolved to be involved in the future of woodworking this year. I will either begin a children’s woodworking class, or assist a better woodworker in starting a class of his or her own.

I have never found a shop apron that I really like. This year I will, or I will sew it myself. Is anyone out there that can teach me to sew? The only thing I have ever "turned" is the steering wheel and the volume control on the radio. I have a desire to learn to turn, even if all I ever make is dowels. If they are straight and uniform in size, I will feel as if I have accomplished a lot. I would love to make a bowl, and 2011 may be the year to take the plunge. I had a scroll saw once, did not use it much, and sold it. I think I might get another scroll saw (maybe the Rikon scroll saw , a great "starter" unit) and get serious about learning to use it well. I want to do some true tool comparisons. I distrust the word "review," since so many reviews I read appear at best, disingenuous and at worst, lacking in veracity. And so often my own experiences have not been in keeping with those of the "professional" reviewers.

Like every year, I know there will be and actually look forward to the events that cause us all to veer from the path we have set. These unexpected events keep spontaneity alive and provide excitement. Will I get to everything on my "to do" list? Probably not. But will I do other, equally exciting, new things? Hope so. Hope you do, too. I hope that 2011 is a very special and exciting year for you in woodworking and in life in general. Remember, it is the journey, not the destination! Stay safe, keep it down to earth, have fun, build something! Happy New Year!

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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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