This Month's Column:
A Madcap Shop Tour
Poor Man's Roubo Bench Build - Part 3
THE MADCAP WORKSHOP - Thoughts On Creating A Happy Place
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No book on woodworking, be it dedicated to technique or to philosophy, or both, would be complete without a discussion on the shop itself.
Woodworkers are genetically hardwired to be obsessed with tools and tooling. It's some sort of law that, once you begin in the adventure of woodworking, you are required to take leave of all your senses, and begin hoarding tools. Large tools, small tools, tools to work on your tools, tools that may or may not ever be seen again once they are brought home, nevermind taken out of their boxes. It is as sure as night follows day that a woodworker, no matter where in his career maturity he is, will undoubtedly find a way to spend more money than is reasonable on tooling. Amateur and pro alike.
I am no exception. Though, I will say, that this last go-around (yes, I am guilty of having been fortunate enough to have outfitted more than one personal woodshop) I was remarkably thrifty and thoughtful in my equipping of The Tiny Shop.
The Tiny Shop is the home of The Madcap Woodwright. Currently The Tiny Shop is roughly 250 square feet bristling with the very best vintage prewar and postwar American made machinery that I could find. It also boasts a selection of equipment from overseas that have withstood the test of time and are worthy of their place next to my vintage American iron.
The Tiny Shop also has one thing that none of the other shops I have either worked in as a hired hand, or my own previous personal shop have ever had:
looks and feels good
This is important, I feel, because it is a factor in the overall enjoyment of the practice of woodworking as an art. Most wood shops tend to be in basements, or garages (like The Tiny Shop is) or warehouses. These places often times have hard concrete floors, bad lighting, and a dark-dank feeling to them.
Being a woodworker does help with the overall feel of the place though. There are very few gulags that do not brighten right up with the aroma of good coffee and freshly cut hardwood.
I think that every woodworker should take great pains to ensure that their workspace be as comfortable, warm, and inviting as is humanly possible. It is where creativity and expression will be birthed. Why not give the space the care and affection that it deserves? It will, after all, be required to house and protect a large portion of your assets, not to mention be the place that functions as the catalyst for any attempt to reclaim the expense of its creation, through creative endeavor.
Light colored walls (unless they happen to be brick, and even then maybe...), a good source of heat for the wintertime, good ventilation in the warmer months, wood flooring, or some sort of padded mats, bright lighting, and a small, but reasonably high quality source for music, all make the hours spent in the space much more conducive to creativity and enjoyment.
To the extent that a woodworker is able, he or she should make every attempt to carve out a workspace that allows them to work efficiently and with comfort.
TOOLING - "Too Much, Is NEVER Enough"
I will approach this section from the perspective that the majority of woodworkers do, and that is from someone who uses both hand tools and machines to work wood. Some shops are built upon, and highly successful at, building projects using old world techniques and nothing more than hand tools.
I confess that I had been corrupted early on in my career by the use of machines, but only after it was established that I could perform the majority of the same operations competently by hand. Thank you to my shop teacher Don Rauh.
As I have grown older, and time and repetitious work have taken their toll on my joints, the joints in my hands in particular, I find that I depend more and more on machines and jigs to do the heavy lifting for me. Some may argue that the noise and the dust diminish the experience, and to some extent I agree.
However, while I appreciate the satisfaction of hand cut joinery, and I adore the feel of a sharp blade slicing through lovingly dressed hardwood, I have come to a place now that dictates that I embrace both the use of hand tools and also the use of jigs and machinery to produce my pieces. It is the way things are, if not as how they should be.
THE HOLY TRINITY - Table saw/Jointer/Planer
In the vast majority of wood shops, there are three tools that make up the cornerstone trio of material preparation. The table saw, the jointer and the surface planer.
NOTE: While I will be discussing some of the procedures that are used when using these machines, I am not attempting to provide a "How-to" tutorial. Throughout the bulk of the discussion on tooling, I feel I need to describe, however disjointedly, some of the capabilities and functions of these machines. IN NO WAY SHOULD ANY OF THESE DESCRIPTIONS BE TAKEN AS A HOW-TO OR AS INSTRUCTIONS AS TO HOW TO USE THE MACHINES.
Out of the three, the table saw is generally regarded as the centerpiece of the shop. While I will never dispute its value, and would never, ever wish to have to do without mine, I find that in practical terms, it is the jointer that is the ground zero of accuracy in any workshop.
When starting any project, the material that is to be used first needs to be "dressed". That is, dimensioned and squared.
Even when pre-dimensioned stock is purchased, it often times still requires the refacing and squaring of an edge to that face before it is useable in a project.
The jointer is used to first flatten and create a primary reference surface on the board. Next, the board is turned so that this new reference surface is used as a guide to bring one edge into square with the initial face.
Now what is left is a true 90 degree angle between the face that was flattened, and the edge that was squared to that face. From here, the board can be run through the planer to bring the second face to square with the first face and edge.
At this point the board can be ripped on the table saw (cut in the same direction as the grain) to produce a board ready for final length cutting - cross cutting.
Once these steps are performed, what should be the result, is a "six-squared-board". If the board is square in all directions, it is ready to be routed, or joined, or shaped with a high level of confidence in its overall accuracy.
The Shaper and Router - Portrait In Versatility
Machines that have a cutter that spins at insane speeds are generally loud, brash, and generally terrifying. However, aside from our own hands, they represent a class of machine that is perhaps the most versatile in the modern woodworker's arsenal.
I don't think that is an overstatement. When you consider the sheer number of operations that a well tuned shaper or router can perform, then add to that the variety of cutter options available, and then add to THAT the repeatability and level of accuracy that these machines are capable of, it's just no contest.
The only machine that even comes close is a Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) router, which is an oversized, computer controlled router itself.
Raised panels, edge details, joinery, stock preparation, and the list goes on. The only limits being the size and profile of the individual cutters.
If you are an experienced woodworker, than a shaper is a "must-have" if you have the means and the space. They are just that good at so many things, any self-respecting woodwright would be hard pressed to come up with a reason not to have one.
I can hear the arguments that they are loud and downright dangerous. Granted. The shaper is indeed a machine that will do serious, serious damage to you if you were to get yourself on the wrong side of safety. The use of a power feeder setup is highly advised in order to keep your hands out of harm's way.
The other downside is the initial cost out lay. These things are not cheap. Nor are the cutters required to make them the epic woodworking machine that they are. Take it from me though, if you are used to using a router for some of the operations that both machines share capability in, once you use a shaper and explore its versatility, it's a game changer.
Speaking of routers, if you, like me, have neither the means or the space for a full blown shaper setup, the use of a router, or better yet several routers, is the next best thing. A little louder still, a little more limited in their versatility, but pound for pound, operation for operation, a router is the finest example of bang for your buck when it comes to shop equipment. Bar none.
A Short Word On Hand Tooling
I am going to wrap this up by making a comment on hand tooling. Frankly, the subject needs its own article. There is just too much to be said about the subject to try to capture it here.
The same goes for other machines in the shop. There are more to be discussed, and I propose to do exactly that...stay tuned.
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John McBride is a professional woodwright, blogger, and writer, living and working joyfully and with abandon in Denver, Colorado. He welcomes feedback on any of his writing, and can be reached
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