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Apartment Woodworking: Year 10 Retrospective (Part 1)

I recently celebrated my 10th woodworking anniversary. About this time in 2012, I got sick of paying for furniture that didn’t quite match my sensibilities and took matters into my own hands. I’ve probably covered this before, but growing up, we were a New Yankee Workshop household (not a Woodwright’s Shop) household. So when I decided to get back into woodworking as an adult, I went first for some power tools. A home center run with my father resulted in 12″ chop saw, a plunge router kit, a cordless handheld tool bundle, and a boatload of wood screws (plus one hard point saw and one chisel). Those tools alone got me through a bed (that was reclaimed into the base frame for my bar), a desk (that was reclaimed into the base frame for my regular outdoor workbench), and a console table (reclaimed into god knows what).

But I quickly gravitated toward working primarily without power. Not just because it’s loud and dusty using a plunge router in your foyer, no matter how great your shop vac. But also because it’s meditative to me. Now I am sure there are some folks who Zen out with the random orbit sander. But not I. My happy place is a No. 6 or No. 7 hand plane and a stack of rough sawn lumber to S4S.

My other happy place.

Sure, I still have that same chop saw and cordless circular saw. And I regularly use them, along with a hollow chisel mortiser and a thickness planer. I even bought an impact driver a couple months back and can’t believe how I’ve lived without one for all these years. But the fact is, nowadays my power tools support my hand work; not the other way around.

Although I joke that I am an artist, I will never make anything that ends up in a museum. I’m not a savant at anything woodworking related (although I consider myself well above average at hand cut dovetails). I have a day job, that keeps me very busy. And in these 10 years, I’ve devoted enough time to the craft to have picked up a thing or two. And I’d like to share that collected wisdom with the world.

This will be a multi-part series. I’m not sure how many installments there will be, and I certainly expect I won’t make it straight through without deviating to regular posts. I have literally no sponsors.

Getting Started in Woodworking

If you’re here, it may be because you’ve searched “Woodworking in an Apartment” or “Small Space Woodworking” and took a flyer. If so, welcome. I’m James and I have very strong opinions on literally everything.

If you think you might want to get into hand tool woodworking with a limited tool kit and limited space, there are better resources than me. You should go to YouTube and check out Paul Sellers and Richard Maguire. Paul and Richard are giants to me. Paul’s 10 part workbench video came out a few months before I started woodworking (although I didn’t discover Paul until 2014, after 2 years of fapping about with power tools). Paul is like a combination of Mr. Rogers and Bob Ross.

Richard started posting a year into my woodworking career. Paul’s website, Common Woodworking, didn’t exist when I needed it most. Richard’s site, The English Woodworker, has long form content (both paid an unpaid) that cannot be beat. Richard is at the same time exceedingly practical and esoteric. Trust me; you’ll see.

So check their stuff out and maybe come back here if you want more of those very strong opinions of mine. If you’re open to using more substantial power tools, the Woodworkers’ Guild of America and the Wood Whisperers Guild are both good resources.

Beginner Woodworker Hand Tools

People have written entire books on this question. I have my own thoughts, sure. My only piece of real input is to buy a few tools of good quality, rather than a bunch of tools of crappy quality. But if you want my 10 year retrospective take on the absolute core tool kit, here it is.

  • Hardpoint panel saw from the home center (Home Depot has DeWalt; Lowes has Craftsman; I have used both)
  • 1/2″ (and maybe 1″ too) Lee Valley bevel edge chisel (the ones with the clear handle; they work both for fine work and mortising)
  • No. 5 Stanley Bailey pattern Hand Plane (Patrick Leach at http://www.supertool.com/ can get you a good worker that won’t take much to restore; sign up for his monthly tool list so you can build your kit with good vintage stuff if you want to go forward)
  • Stanley 10-049 folding utility knife (Paul Sellers swears by this knife and so do I; get it from Amazon)
  • Thorex double face mallet (both Paul Sellers and Richard Maguire use one and so do I; get it from Amazon)
  • 12′ tape measure (the Starrett “exact” one is pretty great, and cheap, from Amazon)
  • 12″ combination square (I use a Starrett, but Lee Valley sells a 12″ in a set with a 6″; they are pretty accurate for the price)
  • Taytools double sided diamond plate sharpening stone (these are pretty good for the price, Amazon available, but also get a sharpening stone holder from powertec or peachtree and some 3 in 1 oil)
  • Vise type honing guide for plane and chisel sharpening (I like the eclipse-style one you can get from Lee Valley, but make sure to make a stop block system for repeatable angles)
  • Cordless drill driver (let’s face it, you probably have one already)

And that’s it. Don’t forget the glue and the mechanical pencil.

You can probably get away with a speed square from the home center instead of a combination square.

Workbenches

I currently work on a Moravian-style knock down workbench based on Will Myers’ excellent video series. And Christopher Schwarz of Lost Art Press is the modern authority on workbenches of all styles. His Ingenious Mechanicks book changed my life.

But for my money, I would check out either The Naked Woodworker workbench, which can be built with just dimensional framing lumber from the home center and the tool kit described above. Or check out Rex Krueger on YouTube and his “Joiners Workbench“, which is similar but arguably easier to build with the same kit.

Or just find a thick plank and make that Grandpa Amu low workbench, which I love.

I’ve built a few of those Chinese-style low benches, two of which are shown in this one picture.

I’m going to stop it there for now. I could otherwise go on forever.

Btw, I’m not on twitter anymore. I have a strict “no social media owned by delusional man child” policy (I’ve been off facebook for several years for the same reason and never had an instagram).

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An Apartment Workbench

So I’ve hit the reset button.  Armed with only the tools listed below, I’m going to start again in my woodworking life.  First step is to knock together a decent workbench, then follow it up with a tool storage unit.

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Deja Vu all over again!

Let’s talk about the tools, first:

  • Handsaw.  For this, I’m using the excellent Brooklyn Tool & Craft Hardware Store saw.  I love this thing, but any impulse hardened contractor saw from the home center will do.  I especially like the Craftsman 20″ saw from the home center, if you’re going that route.
  • No. 5 Jack Plane.  The body is a Type 11 or 12 Stanley; the rest of it is very much a harlequin baby of scavenged parts from a number of different planes, plus a new Honduran Rosewood knob and tote.  I could easily have gone with a No. 4 smoothing plane, such as the very decent Taytools version.  I just like the slightly longer sole for quasi-jointing.  I’m using two different irons: one for scrubbing and one for smoothing.
  • Speed Square.  Nothing fancy here; just a plastic Stanley speed square from the home center.  I agonized about whether to use my Starrett Combination Square.  But, amazingly, this speed square (which I’ve had for a billion years) is pretty square.  This will, in fairness, be the first thing I swap out for a high end tool.
  • 1/2″ Chisel.  If I had to choose just one size chisel to use forever, it would be a 1/2″.  And the Lie-Nielsen socket chisels are second to none.  Period, full stop.  Narex are pretty good too.  Buy buy the ones from Lee Valley; the Amazon ones seem to be poorer quality, for whatever reason.  That’s a Thorex hammer, which I bought on recommendation from Paul Sellers (and I can’t live without it now).
  • Folding Utility Knife.  As noted above, I fully consider myself a disciple of Paul Sellers, and this knife is absolutely all the marking knife you need.  Cheap and effective: the apartment woodworker’s dream.
  • Tape measure, mechanical pencil, wood glue.  Stanley, PenTech, Titebond 1.  ‘Nuff said.
  • Cordless drill driver.  Whatever you’ve got.  Mine is a DeWalt 20V.  A two or three jaw brace would work just as well.
  • Sharpening Stones (not pictured).  I use Atoma diamond plates.  You could honestly get away with just the 1200 grit version, which after a little use breaks in nicely.  But having the 400 grit version makes flattening and regrinding easier.  I’m not bold enough to freehand sharpen, so I’m keeping my Lie-Nielsen sharpening jig (but a cheapo Eclipse knockoff will work fine too).

The plan is to make a low workbench.  Not a staked version.  That would require auger bits for a brace and a spokeshave to make round tenons, not to mention a bevel gauge or comparable jig.  This low bench will be patterned roughly off a Schwarz-pattern saw bench.  I prepared the slab off camera.

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Yes, I have lots of parallel jaw clamps.  That doesn’t count.

Douglas Fir 2×4’s at my local home center are about 102″ long.  That’s eight and a half feet, in the vernacular.  Which means the off-cuts from a 72″ workbench are long enough for legs and gussets on a low workbench.  That said, there are not four clear off-cuts from the seven boards I had.  And I would never lie to my readers.  I’ll use some 2×8 offcuts I have left over from a Naked Woodworker workbench I made for my brother for the legs.  Or just buy a couple more 2×4’s from the home center.

Speaking of not lying to you guys, I’d like to be clear about something.  I surfaced two of the seven boards for the glue up using buckets as saw benches, to prove I still can.  But for the sake of my lower back and sanity I did the rest on my 60″ roman workbench.  I’m not a masochist, after all.  At least not in my woodworking.

I’m going to leave it there for now.  Next post, I’ll work on the legs and change up the rules a little bit.

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Back to My Roots

So it’s still a global pandemic, and I’m running out of lumber for projects.  I used up the last of my 1×12 eastern white pine for a sweet wall-leaning bookcase, which is really just for displaying my vintage Lego sets.  This was only supposed to be the prototype, but it came out so nice, I’m leaving it at that.  More on that soon.

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Space 1989-1995 FTW!

I also finished my new workbench, which is roughly in the Nicholson style.  Made of hard maple (other than  little bit of soft maple blocking under the holdfast holes), it’s 98″ long, 22″ deep and 34.75″ high.  It’s the longest workbench I’ve ever worked on, and, to be fair, it’s probably bigger than I need it to be.  Honestly, it’s probably too big for the 12.5′ x 13.5″ bedroom that I use as my shop.  I’m not banging the walls with a jointer plane or anything, but it’s definitely tight clearance on the ends.

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It has no rear apron, like a true Nicholson.

I’ve also been practicing staked furniture (mostly low benches).  I think I’ve found a layout that I like, both structurally and aesthetically.  65 degree sight line and 10 degree resultant angle.  It keeps the round mortises near the outside of the top but is still fairly stable.  There is always one wonky leg, but what can you do?

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At least, this time, it’s too little splay and not too much.

So all this is a way of saying I’ve been keeping busy as best I can.  But I need a challenge.  And I need to get back to my apartment woodworker roots.  I’ve gotten too cozy with my proper workbench and full tool chest.

So I’m hitting the reset button.  I’ve got seven Douglas Fir 2×4’s and only these tools:

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Although, in fairness, I might use my No. 4 smoothing plane.

Let’s see what we can make!

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Rapid Fire

It’s been a while since my last blog post, but I’ve been far from idle in terms of woodworking. First off, I finished up the new office desk and it works great. The Eastern White Pine is much easier on the elbows than red oak, and sitting on a stool (rather than an Aeron Chair) has helped my posture immensely.

I have since purchased a drafting stool.  

I’m nearing the end of the the bathroom vanity build, which I’ll post in more detail about later in the week. It’s a complicated project in quartersawn white oak that really does a number on my edge tools. I’ve recently switched to a Lie-Nielsen honing guide (which my sister-in-law bought me for the holidays) and the angles don’t match the cheap-o guide I’ve been using forever. They are, in fact, about 5° difference (e.g., 40° on the old guide roughly corresponds to 35° on the LN). 

Sure, I could have soldiered on doing the math every time.  But thinking is the bane of efficiency in the shop.  So I made a new sharpening jig out of sweet, sweet mahogany.  This jig is less complicated too because planes and chisels register in the same slot in the LN guide (the cheap-o guide has different slots for each).

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I needed a new notation because it’s really about 35.5°.

Interestingly, the LN guide is also wider.  Or, rather, it doesn’t have the extra material in the middle, so on my largest blades (specifically, for my No. 7 plane), it didn’t register fully and introduced additional error.  About 50% wider did the trick.  

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The old guide and the old jig will now live in my toolbox.

Speaking of which, the new tool box is also finished.  It came out really great (if I do say so myself).  It fits a No. 5 jack plane, a tenon saw or half-back saw and all the other accoutrements I may need for on-site work.  And it looks really pretty. 

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Compare it to the old tool tote.

I have two complaints about it, though. First, I haven’t found any lifts that I like yet.  Second, the eye on the transom chain anchor gets in the way sometimes, making it a little finicky to remove the tray.  But that’s the cost of storage, I guess.

So that’s all for now.  

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Circle of Life

One of my very first woodworking projects was a king-size bed frame.  Made from Hard Maple and Douglas Fir, there wasn’t a single proper joint init.  Just glue, screws and corner brackets.  I built it over a couple of weekends from dimensional lumber (my only woodworking tool at that point being a miter saw).  I recall it being much too tall.  Between frame, box spring and mattress, it was probably 38″ off the ground.  Getting in and out of bed was a minor acrobatic feat.

But, god damn, was I proud of that bed frame.  the design sprang from my mind and was made reality by my own hands.  Little did I know it would be the first step down a figurative rabbit hole of my newest (and current) obsession.

Alas, the bed did not survive one of my moves.  It was permanently disassembled back in 2014 and, since then, pieces (like the stretchers) were re-purposed for other furniture projects.  And all along, the main pieces of the frame (four hard maple 5/4 x 8’s, each over six feet long) sat in the corner.  Too slathered in dark stain and polyurethane to ever be useful, I thought.

Until now.

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I’m pretty sure the glue will hold at this point.

With Spring now sprung, it’s time for serious woodworking again.  Those four hard maple 5/4 x 8’s are now eight hard maple 5/4 x 4’s.  And they are quickly becoming ready for laminating.  Probably into into a single 40 x 16 slab to form the top of a sharpening/grinding station.  But, for now, I’ll leave them at full length and see how thick the final lamination can be.

And the great circle of life begins anew.

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Passage of Time…

… as marked on the fence of a shooting board.

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Almost 2 years since the last time I squared it up.

It’s been a while since I last posted, and I missed my usual grumpy New Year’s post.  In penance, I’ve kept with the half tails motif on my recent dovetails.  This time for the large sliding tray in my English floor chest.

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Fear me, fancy lads!

Two more sliding trays to go, plus wall racks, a saw till and a lid.

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Various Miscellany

It’s that time of year again: Autumn in New England.  The most beautiful time of year anywhere in the world.  I’d take New England Fall over any other season in any other location.  It’s also my most productive time of the year for woodworking.  To wit:

The guest room bed frame finally got a coat of paint.  General Finishes Milk Paint is such a joy to apply and I think their Driftwood color goes with anything.  I need to eventually add the chamfer detail on the base of each leg, but it works for now.

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Not bad for home center Douglas Fir.

The entire guest room is actually done now, replacement ceiling fan and all.  If it weren’t on the southwest side of the building, I daresay I’d make this the master bedroom.

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And I finally found a good place for that blanket chest.  

I also upgraded the workbench a smidge by increasing the capacity on the crochet.  1.75″ just wasn’t enough.  Adding a 0.50″ red oak spacer (a species I find similar to ash in many respects) brings the overall capacity to just over 2.25″.

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It’s not a perfect match, but at least the hurricane nut doesn’t bottom out.

Finally, I started work on a couple of bench appliances.  One is a benchtop bench, that starts by laminating some old 3/4″ plywood that I reclaimed from up in Vermont.  Four pieces of 3/4″ plywood makes a 3″ thick slab that is stable and heavy.  This will likely replace my Milkman’s Workbench as my traveling woodworking bench.

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Laminating plywood is not easy, but having a perfectly flat section of workbench helps.

The other benchtop appliance is a David Barron-style shoulder vise that clamps onto the benchtop (like a twin screw Moxon Vise).  This will likely end up as another ash/red oak amalgamation and is made from scraps as they become available.  And I plan to re-purpose the screw and hub from the failed face vise.

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Looks a bit like a crochet at the moment.

There are a few bigger things in the hopper, but for now I’m still clearing projects and making shop furniture.

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A Loving Home

A package came in the mail on Saturday.  James over at The Daily Skep was gracious enough to gift to me the box he made for his custom box for a Veritas Large Router Plane.  I am happy to say the box now has a new home in my tool chest.

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Fits very nicely.

For those who haven’t seen it before, it holds the plane itself, the fence and some additional blades, with a sliding lid.  I am particularly fond of the bits of veneer that hold the plane in place in the well.  It feels very Dutch tool chest-like in its own way.

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I seem to have one more extra blade than James.

Thanks very much, James.  By the way, if you’re not a reader of The Daily Skep, you should be.

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Impulse Shopping

Every time I stop by the lumberyard, I find something I didn’t know I was looking for. This time, it was 31 linear feet of 12 x 5/4 eastern white pine, with very few knots. On sale. So for about US$60, I now have the boards for a carcase, lid and probably floor of an English floor chest. If I ever get around to building one. And if not, I’m sure I’ll find some other use.

My car smells amazing, right now.

I went to the lumber yard, btw, for a scrap of quarter-sawn white oak (seen in the middle).

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The Vainglorious Optimism of Despair

It’s that time of year again.  The time for reflection, introspection and after-Christmas sales.  The time when everyone looks back at the previous revolution around the Sun and thinks: “Man, that sucked.  But next year: that’s going to be my year.”  I applaud your hope, whether real or feigned.  But I will not delude myself into thinking things are looking up.  My only hope is that, just like cleaning your room as a child, things have to get worse before they get better.

And so we find ourselves, on the precipice of autocracy, the world almost certain to figuratively and literally burn.  But I have my workbench, and my tools, and my hands and my mind.  And for this, I am grateful.  So if I am needed, you can find me in the shop making something that will last.

And when the world does burn, at least the hide glue will flow better for a time.  Happy New Year, everyone.

Here is a picture of my cat under a blanket.

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