Henry at Handworks

May 21, 2013 — 2 Comments

This Saturday morning, I will be speaking along with Don Williams and Christopher Schwarz in Amana, Iowa at Handworks, a formidable gathering of people interested in woodworking tools and traditions.

I’m a late addition to the speaker lineup, which is perhaps appropriate because actually–I won’t be speaking that much. Doing most of the speaking for me will be a small selection of the thousands of images I’ve taken in the last two years of the Henry O. Studley Toolchest project. This will be the first time the public has ever seen most of these images, which will likely not be seen again until they are featured in Virtuoso, a book being written by the aforementioned Don Williams and published by Lost Art Press

The Studley Toolchest

I’ve written before about this project and my involvement with it, but I can’t say enough how great it is to work with Don and with Chris (again) and to have the privilege of examining and documenting this national treasure. I’m excited to share that experience and some of its results-to-date with the Handworks audience on Saturday.

Japanese Box Build

April 14, 2013 — 5 Comments

A few weeks ago Wilbur Pan wrote a post about a Japanese toolbox he built. This project caught my eye for a number of reasons—its simplicity more than anything. One board, some nails, and a few tools. The perfect project for Ray.

I figured a box like this would serve Ray well. He needed a way to transport his “contraption parts” and toys from one place to another, and he’s wanted a place to sister-proof toys he considers special. So he was excited when I proposed this project to him.

I showed him the box on Wilbur’s site as well as a Japanese toolbox that Chris found when he was in Australia. That box features some very simple finger joints that I find aesthetically pleasing. Ray, however, chose the simpler box, saying, “I don’t like those fancy sticky-out things”. So simple it was.

We were all set to go out to the home center to pick up some pine but I thought I’d first check the garage attic, where some miscellaneous boards leftover from my house’s construction remain. Bingo. A pine board more than long enough, totally dry, and only slightly twisted. Ray helped me bring it into the shop.

box board

I had him size the box using his arms, then count and mark out the pieces on the board. I then crosscut the pieces with a handsaw while Ray held them and stacked them.


As I didn’t want the box to be too heavy for Ray, I dimensioned the lumber to a little over 1/2”, then asked him to pick up the stack of wood, telling him that the box with toys in it would be at least that heavy. He decided to make the box shorter, and I made the box a little less tall than wide. I then showed him how all the pieces would go together.


Unlike the wooden jet project, Ray found putting the box together very challenging. With the jets, fitting the pieces together was not unlike putting together a puzzle—it was easy to tell which parts went where. When you pressed most of them into place they would stay together. Not so with loose boards. I quickly planed a very shallow rabbet (maybe 2 passes) on the bottom piece—he then had a very slight edge which helped him know where the box sides should go.

But clamps, even the quick-set ones, weren’t easy for Ray to manipulate, and in truth, I think it was in this initial assembly stage that Ray kind of gave up on the project. He made it through some glue and a few nails but started getting too restless and fidgety to keep him in the shop safely. I need to do a better job of realizing that it’s the instant gratification of snapping together LEGOs that I’m competing against. The trick isn’t keeping his attention span; he has an enormous attention span and boundless curiosity for things he enjoys; the trick is keeping the steps challenging enough to engage him but not so challenging that they become frustrating. In retrospect, I think setting the box up for him to drill and nail would have been a better approach.

After Ray went to bed that evening, I finished the box. I used box nails on the bottom, setting them deep so they wouldn’t scratch whatever Ray set the box on. And in addition to hide glue (unnecessary, but made assembly a little easier) I used wrought head cut nails for the sides and top handles. And for the pieces which go across the top of the lid, I used some cut brad nails, but only because I didn’t have any other cut nails that would work with the thinner stock.


After milling the lumber (an unnecessary step if you buy appropriately dimensioned lumber to begin with), and not accounting for time spent helping Ray, the whole project probably went together in about 45 min or less. It really is a great project; if only everything I did in the shop could come together so quickly!

Japanese Box

I placed the finished box on the kitchen counter and Ray was thrilled to find it in the morning. He loves it—enough that he asked me to help him make a few more. A few things I’ll try differently as we make these boxes:

  • I’m going to pursue the finger-jointed version next time. I’ve already made a prototype, and by gang-cutting the joints, the whole thing comes together very fast. I think the finger joints will actually help Ray manage the assembly more easily by making more apparent what pieces go where and make the whole box easier to handle. The only clamp that will really be necessary is the vise in the joinery bench, which is easy for him to use.
  • Since we’ll be making a few boxes, the first one be an assembly-only project, with all parts prefabricated and holes pre-drilled. It’ll have the finger joints cut and small rabbets to help register pieces against each other. He’ll just glue and nail. He loves the hammer and cut nails.
  • For the second box he’ll drill at least some of the holes; he loves the eggbeater drill and the brace and already knows about pre-drilling from the jet project.
  • If we make a third one, maybe I’ll let him use a saw for one of the final cuts—maybe a flush-cutting saw to trim off one of the top pieces.

My wife and I are thrilled that the box is a place that Ray actually likes to keep toys that would otherwise lay all over the kitchen and family room, and of course, Ray is thrilled that his sister can’t get at them.


But Anya’s strong enough now that she’ll just end up taking the whole box with her if Ray isn’t sitting on it. This is all part of the plan. Someday Anya will want to make a box for herself. And maybe by then Ray can teach her how.

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

Continue Reading…

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?”

Continue Reading…

Best. Progress. Bar. Ever.

February 15, 2013 — 1 Comment

One of the nice things to come out of the “boutique” app ecosystem is that apps as a whole feel less…corporate. Nothing crushes creativity more than a corporation’s tendency to try and appease everyone not offend anyone (evidence: office art). If a one-person software company wants to make someone smile, they don’t have to go through Legal. Not a lot of smiles in Legal. Lots of hand-wringing and Xanex. There are, however, lots of smiles in HR. But HR smiles are mandated by the people in Legal. It’s a vicious circle.

This screenshot of a progress bar from Acorn (an image editor I use often) is a great example of the kind of thing you can pull off if your approach to products is driven first and foremost by a desire to delight humans:

bit crush

For what it’s worth, I now probably only spend about 25% of my image editing time (both professionally and personally) in Photoshop. That 25% is largely dedicated to print pre-production and advanced image compositing. Photographically, I try to get everything right in the camera, so Aperture’s relatively modest image editing toolset suits me just fine. For everything else, and especially non-photographic imagemaking work, it’s small(ish) Mac apps like Acorn. PixelMator‘s another good one (though for me a little over-designed). Hell, lots of what needs to be done can actually be done in OS X’s Preview these days.

It’s not that Photoshop is a bad tool. It’s the only game in town for that 25%. The other 75%, though, can easily be done in other smaller, cheaper, faster, and more delightful tools. Tools that make me smile. Tools that don’t take an hour to install and six hours to remove. Tools that still have a single-minded sense of purpose, that still work as if doing one thing really, really well is orders of magnitude better than taking a mediocre approach to everything. Tools whose creators or product managers have enough conviction in their product’s longer-term vision (as well as the requisite backbone) to know how to say “no” to feature requests, even if it costs them a sale. Tools whose creators take PayPal and trust you even before that. It’s just like the shareware days but with a real checkout counter.

Don’t even ask me what I use for wireframing. It’s sacrilege.

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.

Continue Reading…


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?”

Continue Reading…

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.