Category Archives: Experiences

The Roller Coaster ride of experience

Kumbaat Busch Gardens - WOW!I’ll remember it like the day it happened. I was standing in Busch Gardens, the Dark Continent in Tampa one steamy August afternoon. Looking up, my sight fell upon the aqua and red tracks of Kumba, the new enormous roller coaster the park had just opened. 143 feet tall. 114 foot vertical loop. Batwing maneuvers. Not one, but TWO inverted cobra rolls. This thing was a monster.

As the train whooshed by at 60 miles per hour, I could feel myself being knocked backward by the rush of air and deafened by the roar.

And, I was in line to take a ride on it.

I grew up in a family where my mom couldn’t stand to see her sons in peril. She cringed through six football seasons as my younger brother took to the gridiron. We grew up within short driving distance of a ski resort, but never went because it was too dangerous. Needless to say, whenever we went anywhere with a roller coaster, we were told just how perilous they were.

So, you could imagine my fear when I boarded the train – my first real roller coaster train – and it started to go up the lift hill.

Now, sure, it may not be as dramatic as that first rush down the hill in the coaster, but why do I sometimes feel the same apprehension before trying anything new when I woodwork?

My first dovetailsFor instance, a few years ago, I was building a shadow box for my dad to house his military badges and medals. I found some choice maple that would be perfect when finished. I also found a nice scrap of cherry molding that would be just long enough to dress the piece up and serve as a glass stop. Everything was going to be perfect.

In order to make this piece extra special, I decided I was going to use dovetails. My first ones. Ever. Gulp.

No one could accuse me of not doing my homework. I read everything I could get my hands on about machine vs. hand cut. I visited every woodworking forum I could think of. I asked every woodworker I knew for their opinion.

Finally, after nearly two months of weighing my options, I went to my local Woodcraft, walking with the swagger of a seasoned woodworking veteran, and headed straight to the dovetail jigs. When I got there, I froze. The choices were staggering. Akeda. Leigh. Shop Fox. Stots Template Master. I had that blank look in my face when one of the employees walked up and asked me what I was looking for.

When I told him I was a complete novice and never had even seen a dovetail jig before, he recommended the Keller setup. I plunked down my hard earned dead presidents and headed to the car.

When I got home, there was no bravado or swagger left. I found myself staring at the manual, trying to make heads or tails of what I was reading. Tentatively, I assembled the jig and put the bit in the collet. I laid the router down, wood clamped to the jig, and walked inside.

Six days later, when I finally got the courage up to actually make a cut into the lumber I had lovingly jointed, planed and cut to length, I gingerly stepped into the shop and plugged the router in. The router whined to life and, after stopping six or seven times to ensure everything was the way it had to be, I touched bit to wood and stared cutting. Sawdust flew everywhere. Cut, cut, cut.

When I was done, I flipped the jig around and cut the pins. Cut, cut, cut.

Much to my amazement, the joint slipped together – perfectly – on the first try. I was so jacked, I took the pieces inside and showed my wife, who happened to be taking a nap on the family room sofa.

“Wha… Oh, that’s great.” She closed her eyes and lay back down to sleep.

I walked back to the shop, and proceeded to cut the rest of the joints. That afternoon, I had met dovetails, and I had kicked their butts.

When I stepped off Kumba after my first ride, I was pumping my fist in the air.

Now, THAT’S what I’m talking about!

After that, I looked at all roller coasters with a sense of anticipation. “Honey, when can we go to Sandusky, Ohio to ride the coasters up there?” I want a new challenge.

Funny how that first success can breed so much confidence…

Castoffs tell a story

I’m sure that even though I stand out as an outgoing, somewhat goofy columnist, I’m a pretty typical hobby woodworker. I’ve got a pretty typical shop in a pretty typical home in a pretty typical town. I also have those typical problems finding time to get into my shop to do some woodworking.My scrap bucket

Since my shop is so darned typical, I’m sure each of you probably has similar tools, lighting and workspaces.

And, I’ll even bet you have a pile of scraps somewhere near where you do your cutting.

I’m not talking about pieces of wood that still have lots of useful life in them. Those usable, figured or otherwise special looking leftovers find their way to a shelf where I hoard them for future projects. I’m talking about those off cuts that serve no more purpose in the shop. I keep those scraps in two five-gallon buckets hidden between my band saw and rolling clamp rack. It’s just a short toss from the table saw or the work bench.

I’ll collect the pieces there until either a year is up, the pile grows just too big or my wife comes in from the garage after trying to locate a lost soccer ball and informs me it’s just time to clean up. That’s when I find a very creative way to get rid of the evidence: I give it away for people to burn in their fireplaces.

Sure. Laugh it up. Unlike folks up north who shiver their kiesters off all winter, I live in sunny, warm Florida, where there’s really no need for that kind of heating.

And, yes, in some Florida homes, people actually do have working fireplaces. I’ve even been to people’s homes that have the fireplace and the air conditioner running at the same time, just for the ‘atmosphere’.

There are about four homes on my block so equipped, and, rather that just throw this stuff into the trash, I divvy up the loot accordingly. After I scrounge up a few boxes from the local liquor store, I start loading them up with the scraps.

As I go through the bucket, it stops being a clean up exercise and becomes more of a walk down memory lane. What I accomplished this past year can be read in the little chunks, slivers and other splinters I pull out of the bins.

The ragged ends of glued-up panels that I squared up on the table saw. Curved sections I cut from an arched top rail on a door. Sample joints that helped me to find better ways to cut and assemble. Those pieces create an interesting mix of colors as I pull out pine, cherry, maple, oak and lots of exotics. The deeper I dig into the buckets, the older the project scraps are. I find myself thinking about a project I built last winter to have ready in time for the birth of a friend’s grandson. The entertainment center that my wife, sons and I snuggle in front of when we’re watching a family movie. The baptism gift I built for my new nephew.

I’ve noticed that the off cuts tend to get smaller as the year goes on. Maybe it’s because I’m getting better with my joinery. Maybe it’s because I’m getting better with my material estimation and material use. Or, maybe it’s because the woods I’m now buying are much more expensive and I can afford a lot less… Who knows?

After all of this reminiscing, I’m surprised to see just how quickly the job has gone. Each box is filled with memories of my year in the shop. The frustrations. The triumphs. The successes and the failures.All that I am left with are two clean, empty plastic buckets that are ready to serve another year. They get pushed back into the corner, ready to help me tell another story next fall. I’ll load the boxes into my kids’ wagon and head off to the neighbors’ homes. And, each of them is very happy to get their annual supply of kiln dried hardwood firewood from their generous neighbor.

I wonder if any of them really appreciates just how much work goes into creating their kindling?

Beat the Clock

No one likes to be under time pressure. It’s kind of cool and exhilarating when you rush to the phone to call your favorite radio station to see if you could win one of their contests. But, if you are at work, and three ASAP-high-priority-hot-button projects that were due last week land on your desk at the same time, your day is pretty much ruined.

The same thing comes into play with woodworking.

Honest answers, please. Raise your hand if you have ever opened your big mouth and offered to build something for a special occasion – even before you considered how long it would take.

One, two, three, four… OK, there are a lot of you. I’ve done it. A lot.

When a friend or relative announces they are expecting a bundle of joy, I always seem to volunteer to build a cradle. When a happy couple decides to make their relationship a permanent one, my mouth is no longer under my conscious control, and I blurt out that I’d be more than happy to build a suitable present. When a respected co-worker announces his or her retirement, my machismo rises to the surface and I offer to build a shadow box for them to frame their work mementos.

Yes, I am as guilty as they come. Time and again, I never seem to learn from previous experience and think before I offer.

Many’s the weekend I’d be in the shop, deadline fast approaching as I race from operation to operation trying to assemble that gift I promised. Cut the side of a cradle too short? That’s OK, just go back to the saw and trim a little off the other one to match. No time to machine a new one. Joint a little gappy? Some wood filler would do nicely. No time to go back and fix the problem. What about those dovetails I wanted to cut to really make the piece look special? Fagetaboutit! Just glue, screw and plug. NEXT!

Yeah, when you put yourself with your back to the wall, you can really find yourself taking some shortcuts. Fortunately, I haven’t gotten hurt racing to the deadline, but I have got to really start focusing on allowing more time for projects.

For many of these projects, it’s OK to not have them on hand for the big day. If you are building a barrister’s bookcase for a niece who graduated law school, it’s OK to hold off with it until she actually starts with a law firm.

Unfortunately, just as many of these projects do have hard and fast deadlines. If your plan is to build a cradle for your new grandchild, you have to remember that babies sleep in cradles for a very short time. You may find yourself changing that gift from a cradle to a changing table to a toy box to a student’s desk to the aforementioned barrister’s book case as time passes!

Why bring this up now? I’ve done it again! I’ve promised my wife a new dinner table for Thanksgiving, and I’m wondering if the finish will be dry enough to keep the turkey platter from sticking. When I went to my Weiss Hardwoods in Largo, my hardwood supplier, and told Earl in the mill shop what I was doing, he laughed. “Yeah,” he said, “This is the time of the year when we see lots of folks come in with the wild-eyed look.” He stopped for a second, glanced at me sideways, and asked, “You didn’t promise it, did you?”

Uhh… That guy Earl can read minds!The clock is ticking yet again, and word is already out in the family that they’ll be dining from the latest Tom creation. Bad enough I have to cook the dinner, I also have to have the table it will be served on ready to roll. No pressure, right?I know that many of you might be considering building Christmas presents. I’m sure each of you has allowed plenty of time to design, build, finish, wrap and ship those beauties, haven’t you?

If you need some motivation, here’s a countdown clock you just might want to check from time to time. You know, just to be sure you have enough time available to make it happen.

Lots of luck getting those projects done, and be safe!

The Gateway Guy

When I was living off campus at college, my roommates and I weren’t particularly picky about our furnishings. The first two weeks I was in the apartment, we had very little in the way of furniture; an old couch left by former tenants, a TV up on concrete blocks and a pine plank, our beds and a kick butt stereo system. Yes, we had our priorities in order.

When my parents came to visit me the first time, things started to improve. We got some really ugly couches that looked like they came out of some old lady’s parlor, an old dining table that must have been trendy when Kennedy was in office and a coffee table that had seen its share of coffee spills. This was good, but whenever we had a chance to upgrade (read: diving the dumpster), we went for it. Eventually, the majority of our furniture was lovingly plucked from the refuse bin.

Boy, was I in for a shock when my wife and I got married. We had to have some decent (read: NOT obtained by diving the dumpster) furniture to fill our apartment, and eventually our house. Believe it or not, I was shocked by the prices charged for low-quality, mass produced junk. I could forget any sort of custom made furniture – that was way out of my price range! That’s part of the reason why I got into woodworking – I knew there had to be a better way to get good stuff that was custom for my home. And, as I built for my home and showed off my pictures, a strange thing started to happen. Suddenly, I was approached by lots of folks who wanted things built for THEIR homes.

Now, I am a hobby woodworker. I don’t feed my family based on how much I earn building things. And, I don’t have the overhead a business would have, so my expenses are pretty low. And, I have no problem building gifts for my family and friends and giving those away – I know the folks I’m building for will truly appreciate my efforts. And, when I build, it’s kinda like I’m going out to play tennis or golf – it’s what I do for fun.

But, some folks who want things built see me as their gateway to inexpensive custom-built furniture. Now, people like our Woodtalk Online Editors Marc Spagnulo and Gail O’Rourke are professionals at this stuff. They have their expenses calculated out and know exactly how much the market will bear for their hand-crafted custom projects. Their customers don’t balk, because they know they are buying custom pieces from talented craftspeople. Folks like me are at a little disadvantage, because weekend warrior types like me are often not sure exactly what our work is truly worth – or we have difficulty making others see the value of our work.

A few years back, this one lady in my office approached me about building an entertainment center. She had a drawing of what she wanted, and she was very particular with her requirements. “I want it made out of cherry with dovetailed drawers and those doors that open then slide back into the case.”

As I started wrapping my mind around this massive piece of furniture she wanted, she said something that made my jaw hit the floor. “Oh, I saw something like that at Ikea and they wanted $600 for it. ” Pause. “You can build it for less, can’t you?”

I was kind of stunned by what she said, and I told her that I’d have to price out the materials and determine how long it would take to build before I could give her a final cost. When I found that the special door hardware she wanted ran no less than $200, and I visited my hardwood supplier to find cherry ply and stock at a premium here in Florida, I came back and told her she’d be better off buying from Ikea. It was going to cost me money out of my pocket to just buy the materials for the project. And, forget about buying some saw blades or bits with any profit from this challenging job.

Now, this is the exception, not the rule. My neighbors, a couple from the World War II generation, needed some cabinet pull outs made. After a few days of knocking around in the shop and cobbling together some workable units, I built and installed the pieces to their satisfaction and delight. I wasn’t expecting anything in the way of payment, but the lady of the house handed me a tidy sum of money for my efforts. When I said I couldn’t accept any payment, she told me, “You know, if I get this for free, I’m not going to be sure that I got the job done right. Besides, custom cabinetmakers like you deserve the money they earn.

“That was a refreshing change of pace!pic 1My shopMe busting butt in my shop: