Archives For Woodworking

Cool, Your Jets!

April 8, 2013 — 6 Comments

I’d love to get my son, Ray, interested in woodworking. Some of this stems from my desire to provide an alternative to the allure of superheroes on luminescent screens. But as I’ve mentioned previously, a lot of it is the hope that I can teach him that with just a little determination and practice, he can shape his world rather than just purchase one off the shelf (as many people do). I’d like to think that I’m not shoving the hobby in his face, but rather enticing him, picking out shop projects that I think Ray would appreciate, both as an end-product he enjoys using as well as a manufacturing process he connects with.

My last attempt at this was a pair of F–15 fighter jets, which we finished in February of 2012:

Ray's F-15

These jets are as friggin’ awesome as I am modest. They look great, have detachable wheels that click when inserted into the body thanks to some rare-earth magnets. And there are two of them so Ray and a friend can fly them around, engaging in aerial dogfights or embarking on stealth sorties, such as carpet-bombing the “LEGO Terrorist-Harboring Peasant Village” playset we got him when he was 2.

I figured if Ray found the process of making these jets similar enough to assembling something with LEGOs (which he loves and is very good at), it’d be something within grasp and rewarding enough for him to want more. So I involved him extensively first in the project selection process, then as an observer in some of the rough shaping stage (tablesaw, bandsaw, handplanes), and eventually let him use the spokeshave for a bit. But in reality, I fabricated all the parts in a few short-but-sporadic late-night sessions in the shop. Then, in a session lasting the better part of a weekend, he used a brace and handrill, gimlets, some hide glue, a hammer and nails, and some sandpaper and shellac to assemble and finish his toys.

Ray Assembles his F-15

He loved coming out of the woodshop with something he could say he built with me. I had a blast in the shop with him and still enjoy watching him and his friends play with these (though these particular toys are transitioning out of fancy I’m afraid). We’ve had to fix the wings a few times (thank you, hide glue), but I think the project as a whole was a success as far as he was concerned.

Unfortunately, work (and its evil comrade, work travel) picked up shortly after this, so whatever momentum I had coming out of making the jets with Ray vanished like a contrail…like a Ghost rider requesting a flyby.

A few takeaways from that project:

  • It took more time than I had. I think the parts came together quickly in terms of shoptime, but I think it was well over a month for me to get enough shoptime to finish them. That’s a long runway (sorry) from project selection to results, perhaps especially for Ray. I’d like to find simpler, quicker-to-finish projects. Projects that I could realize very easily should his schedule and my schedule just happen to coincide one weekend.
  • My general approach—center his participation around assembly—was right on. He loved figuring out which part went where and other than general tool and safety guidance, I was able to step back and make assembly his to own. Or p0wn, if you will.
  • That said, utimately my main issue with the project was that in the end, I’m not confident that the jets are any different a toy for him than something he puts together with LEGOs. I’m not sure why I feel this way; some of it perhaps is because the jets are really quite nice. Perhaps too nice. Though they have some flaws, they don’t register to me (or to a lot of people) as homemade toys. Hell, many of the toys I made for myself as a kid were made out of paper towel rolls, leftover snap-together model parts, and Elmer’s glue. They were definitely…distinct. And I loved those toys for that. The jets—they’re nice enough for them to compete with plastic toys that have motors and sounds. And on that score maybe they fall short.

I’m posting this for two reasons. One, just this past weekend I attempted another project with Ray: a Japanese box which crossed my radar thanks to Wilbur Pan:

Japanese Box

More on that project in an upcoming post (preview of the results in the photo above).

Two, I’m definitely soliciting suggestions for projects and approaches to woodworking with kids. What age is appropriate for them to handle tools with edges? Machinery? I’m sure this differs somewhat from child to child but it’s a topic on which I would love to gather anecdotes, both good and bad.

Update: I’ve gotten several requests to hand over the secret plans for the plans to these jets. You’ll find them in the book, The Great All-American Wooden Toy Book. It’s a good, inexpensive book with projects at all levels of ambition.

In the last episode, I had just opened a cavity in the bottom of the extension table to make room for a dangling router (no, not a medical condition). On to the laminate!

I decided to put the sides on first, trim them, apply the top, then trim the top flush with the sides. I know others do the top first, but that is only because they are complete idiots and they deserve pity. (Actually I have no preference; if the laminate is applied and trimmed well, there really should be only a nominal difference between techniques).

Contact Cement

So out came the contact cement and, during what I assume was a hallucination due to the contact cement fumes (though you never truly know when you’ll find a head of broccoli trying to turn a vase on your lathe), the sides were applied with the help of a J-roller.

Laminate Edge

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How to Make Your Shop Suck

February 28, 2013 — 4 Comments

It’s quite simple, really:

  1. Find a sump closet with a crazy pipe running diagonally midway through the closet.
  2. Model said closet and pipe in Sketchup to discover that if you install your dust collector at just the right height, rotate your dust collector’s barrel just so, and file off just a little bit of metal, you will clear the back wall of said closet by just .25″ and clear said pipe by just a little more than 2″. This means you can keep the dust collector in the closet, which turns out to be the perfect place for it.
  3. Frantically search for someone who will appreciate you rubbing this bit of good fortune in their face.
  4. Rub said bit of good fortune in said someone’s face.
  5. Do a happy dance when you realize that the 7″ spiral duct that has to go through said closet’s wall clears a stud by .5″.
  6. Wire everything up and watch the receiver of aforementioned face-rubbed good fortune laugh when you discover that the RF remote which turns your dust collector on also turns on a ceiling fan upstairs.
  7. Hang head in shame when you and aforementioned person also discover that turning on the ceiling fan upstairs also turns on the dust collector.
  8. Fix said problem by breaking a trace on the circuit boards of the switch and RF remote per awesome manufacturer’s instructions.
  9. This is the most important step: Label equipment appropriately.

Because every shop needs a suck button.

Extension Table, Part I

February 20, 2013 — 1 Comment

There are two kinds of people: people who will look at the following picture and say, “hey, nice tablesaw!”


…and people who will look at the picture above and say, “hey, what’s up with that gaping void between the fence rails?”

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Joinery Bench

February 10, 2013 — 6 Comments

This post is for woodworking bench geeks. Yes, woodworking bench geeks constitute an official charted chapter of geekdom. Everyone else: this is not the post you are looking for. Move along. Move along.

I have a bad back. Though my back surgery in 2003 surgery helped, my back pain still flares up from time to time. What does that feel like? Lay your lower spine down on a railroad spike and put an anvil on one side of your hip. That should give you some idea. In any case, because I have no particular affinity for railroad spike/anvil yoga, I’m extremely mindful of ergonomics. I have office desks that move up and down. I use my legs to lift. I get in and out of bed and cars a very specific way. I take my time at airports. Because when I don’t do these things, I can be knocked out of commission for more than a month. And that makes Narayan a dull boy.

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February 6, 2013 — 3 Comments

I’d love to tell you that I have built two workbenches. I cannot. I can tell you, however, that I’ve completed two workbenches.

I’d love to tell you that during Chris Schwarz’s Bench Class at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking I spent a week sawing and milling and gluing and joining large douglas fir timbers into a Roubo bench. I did not. I wasn’t even there. Chris did the sawing, the milling, the gluing, and the joining. My bench is assembled from his “teaching” bench–the bench he built along with the class. All I did was buy the lumber and drive down to Indianapolis last April and pick up the pieces of the bench. And take Chris out for a big steak. Or two. Maybe three–I don’t remember. And four sides. Really. Then lend a helping hand when Chris and Megan came over a few weeks later to assemble the pieces into what would eventually be my workbench.

So as a reasonably smart person, you may be saying to yourself, “Self, Narayan picked up the pieces of that bench last April. And had master-level help putting the thing together. And it still took him ten months to finish his damn bench?”

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Four Decades In…

January 6, 2013 — Leave a comment

Today is my 40th birthday. And four decades into this life of modest professional, personal, and gastronomic accomplishment, I find myself still wondering what I want to do when I grow up.

In any case, I can tell you what I want to do with today. The family, at my request, has granted me a near-full day in my woodshop. So the phone is on do-not-disturb and I am gleefully breathing through a dust mask. I will write more later on the projects I will hopefully finish today, but I think this photo summarizes what is shaping up to be a truly fantastic day:


…using my just-finished, adjustable-height, built-in-Moxon-vise joinery bench while trimming some microdot laminate on my just-assembled torsion box tablesaw extension wing. Next up: flattening the top of my main workbench with a wooden jointer plane.

My workshop. In which I take wooden rectangles and assemble them into larger, mostly-wooden rectangles (but only because the lathe isn’t up and running yet).

Update: didn’t get to the benchtop. But the clamps are up and the extension wing is ready to be assembled. And I am never using solvent-based contact cement again.

To catch you up on all-things-etherfarm, not much has happened since my last post, which was made on the day of my daughter’s birth a few years ago. In that time:

Sweet Home Chicago

The family has escaped moved back to the Chicago area from California. It’s probably no secret to anyone who knows me well (or, actually, anyone who had a passing conversation with me) that through my fifteen years away from Chicago, I had been longing to come back for roughly 13 of those. We landed softly, and with the exception of my work travel, our life here couldn’t be better. We’re in walking distance of everything we need, live on a great street with fantastic neighbors who pepper our social calendar with block parties and progressive dinners and the like, and there are numerous options for good deep-dish pizza and Italian beef.

I had high expectations moving back to Chicago, and—incredibly—reality has exceeded all of them.

Sitting on the wall

Birthday Girl


Easter Song

You Shall Not Pass

The Street

House & Kid

Job. Job. Job.

I’ve changed jobs. Twice. I don’t usually blog about work on etherfarm. Work stuff goes here.

Dense as Wood

My woodworking activities have largely been put on hold due to the time demands of my new job and two small kids. The need to dismantle, move and reassemble my woodshop didn’t help either. I’ve made some small things (shelves, racks, etc.) but nothing I’d point out to anyone. Some downtime and an extended period at home over these holidays, however, have allowed me to start to getting things in the woodshop back on track (more on that soon).

To compensate, I try to make as much time as I can for projects with Lost Art Press, a small publisher dedicated to texts about woodworking run by a good friend of mine. Among those projects:

Lost Art Press is good people.

Fork Bending

I have eaten. A lot. Being back in Chicago is both good and bad in this regard.

Good: there is so much good food to eat.

Bad: I eat it.

Since my last post on food, I’ve got at least three food benders under my belt (literally). Don’t worry, I’ve got a post for one of those already lined up.

The Not-Swiss Family Nayar

The kids have obviously grown two-and-something years older. Ray is no longer a toddler (a large part of me thinks he skipped that phase altogether); he’s fully mobile and articulate and reads books without pictures and on good days, helps me cook, clean, and do stuff around the house. He’s interested in anything that involves lasers, robots, and photosynthesis. He still says some of the funniest things I’ve ever heard, which I’ve been documenting on Twitter for a while (#rayquote). Among my favorites:

  • “Right now, medicine is racing through my body on a piece of lasagna, slicing pain in two.”
  • “I don’t wanna learn how to ride a bike without training wheels. I mean, what good is a bike going to be after I learn how to fly?”
  • “I tried and tried until I successed.”

Anya is very much a toddler and Nara and I are being schooled hard on parenting a two year old. I can tell that Anya quotes are right around the corner. Until then, you will all have to be amazed with the following short videos:

Like I said—not much has changed. Just a reboot of practically every facet of my life except my marriage—a partnership which in just a few weeks will have started almost twelve years ago.

Table Play

January 4, 2009 — 8 Comments

I kicked off the new year by finishing up a project I started last year. This is a play table I just finished today for Ray.


Most of the in-house projects I’ve taken on in my current woodshop have been either for the shop or for Ray. Given the way the last few years have been for me at work, I can’t see it having turned out differently. Adult-scale furniture takes me a long time to construct and finish, and as my shop is not very large it’s difficult to store large boards and panels while a piece is under construction. Also, an unfortunate busy spell at work can keep me out of the shop for months at a time, and the larger pieces tend to require a kind of continuity and focus not made possible by such a staccato schedule. So on a variety of fronts, these small-scale pieces are great.

I’ve made three pieces for Ray so far:

A desk and chairs made mostly with handtools, fabricated out of 2x4s:

Ray's Desk

A stepping stool made with the boards of a thrown away futon:

Step Stool Installed

And this latest piece, a play table.

In Use

With all pieces I make for Ray I try to experiment with skills and processes I haven’t yet tried. The last two pieces used curves and sprayed finishes. The desk and chairs were my first legitimate (i.e. non-woodshop furniture) foray into handtools. And this play table was also the first show-in-the-house piece for which I used a spokeshave and which features exposed handcut dovetails.

A lot of people who see these projects while they’re being constructed wonder why I don’t just run down to Ikea to pick up a step stool for $10 or a desk and chairs for $25. They wonder why I handplane children’s furniture or throw pieces away that aren’t turning out well. Why all this effort for something so…ephemeral? And on some level, I understand where they’re coming from. It’s highly unlikely Ray will remember these pieces when he gets older. I certainly have no recollection whatsoever of even using a step stool, much less what it may have looked like or where it may have come from.

Perhaps I don’t really have an answer which would make sense to anyone who would go to Ikea or Target. Why I make these things goes beyond the fact that I just like spending time in the woodshop or that I want to make stuff for my kid. This might sound a little over-the-top, but through these projects I very much believe that in some small way I’m shaping the way Ray sees the world. I want him to know that it’s still possible to make stuff and to know the people who make your stuff. That not everything we use is disposable. That with just a little bit of effort and practice you can still have something to do with the very artifacts around which your life happens–something other than breaking out a credit card, lugging a box home, and cursing at Swedish assembly diagrams.